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City Loses Lawsuit, Pays Landowner $373,000

A judge says reducing the allowed density on an Avenida San Juan property amounted to taking the land.

After a long legal battle, Avenida San Juan Partnership, a small land development group in San Clemente, has won approval to build four single-family homes on its land, as well as $373,000 from the city.

The money will pay the partnership's attorney fees from its lawsuit against the city. On Tuesday, the San Clemente City Council accepted a judge's ruling that the city had illegally reduced the building density on the partnership's land.

The practice, called "spot zoning," is illegal because it treats a particular parcel or parcels of land arbitrarily in relation to nearby lands, said City Attorney Jeff Goldfarb.

According to the city staff report for the decision, the city still believes it was in the right to amend the zoning because of the land's steep topography, but that the court case wasn't winnable and potential damages against the city were too expensive to continue with the decision.

An appeals judge ruled in favor of the partnership in December of 2011, saying the city would have to pay $1.3 million in damages in addition to attorney fees, or just pay attorney's fees and rescind the decision to rezone the plaintiff's land.

The latest ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of the case, so the city council decided unanimously to rescind its zoning decision and pay the attorney's fees as provided by the lower court.

The developer wants to subdivide a 2.85-acre parcel at 404 Avenida San Juan and build four homes overlooking the I-5 Freeway at the south end of town. In 1993, the city zoned the area “very low residential,” meaning it would allow one single-family home per 20 acres, the practical outcome of which is to maintain open space, according to court documents.

(A 1983 landslide in the neighborhood prompted a petition drive to zone the area as open space, although the slide didn't involve that property. The City Council at that time didn't reclassify the land, according to court documents.)

Avenida San Juan Partnership sued in late 2007 after the council denied the development plan based on the 1993 zoning amendment. The partnership said it obtained permission to subdivide the lot in 1983, three years after buying the parcel. The lawsuit also claims the partnership wasn’t notified of the zoning change in 1993, and said none of the surrounding properties comply with that zoning, so the rule is discriminatory.


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