Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

The Los Angeles City Council asked the City Attorney’s Office Wednesday to come up with a plan to legalize permits for hundreds of granny flats, secondary units typically built on the lots of single-family homes, that were potentially invalidated by a judge earlier this year.

The projects were put in limbo after a judge decided in February that a 2010 planning memo was in error when it said city officials could apply more lenient state laws — instead of the city’s stricter regulations — to approve secondary units. The judge’s decision also prompted the city to stop issuing permits for future projects.

Principal City Planner Ken Bernstein told the City Council that ongoing projects have been affected the most by the decision. Dozens of complaints have come into the city from property owners who had already spent time and money to begin constructing their secondary units.

“Our department has been contacted by more than 70 property owners who have been in limbo for quite some time,” he said.

Bernstein added that there are relatively few secondary units being built in Los Angeles, with just “a handful” of applications in each of the council districts each year.

City planners had proposed remedying the legal impasse by “grandfathering” in the already permitted projects and repealing the city’s own regulations so that only the state laws would apply.

However, the plan to repeal the city law was scrapped today after residents expressed concerns that the state’s more flexible rules would result in the construction of oversized secondary units that ruin the character of a neighborhood.

Councilwoman Nury Martinez and several other council members who opposed switching to the state’s regulations, introduced a compromise motion that calls for some temporary revisions to be made to the existing law. In the meantime, city attorneys will craft a new, permanent city ordinance over the next several months.

The City Council backed Martinez’s motion, and took a step toward bring the hundreds of in-progress secondary unit projects out of limbo.

The panel asked that the City Attorney’s Office return next week with an ordinance that would legalize secondary unit projects were approved prior to February and had been approved based on the invalidated memo, or a previous memo issued in 2003.

Martinez said the approval of her motion would “enforce the city’s stringent standards on second dwelling units,” as well as address “immediate legal concerns.”

“We did this while ensuring that we will move forward with an open and transparent process for future changes to the second dwelling units ordinance,” Martinez said.

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell had a rosier view of secondary units, saying they were a way for the city make housing more affordable and plentiful in the city.

O’Farrell expressed his support for Martinez’s motion, saying it resolved the issue in “a very balanced way that looks out for our neighborhoods” while also addressing the plight of “residents across the city who have been in limbo through no fault of their own.”

Fred Woocher, the attorney who sued the city over its 2010 memo, expressed puzzlement today over why the city needed to grandfather any of the projects, because the judge’s decision only applied to the Cheviot Hills project that was being challenged by his client, the group Los Angeles Neighborhood in Action.

Woocher said the decision did not actually require the city to apply the brakes on the other projects that had already gotten approvals, though he said it may have been due to “an abundance of caution.”

“Grandfathering is not necessary, but if they want to do it, we don’t oppose it,” Woocher said.

Despite today’s actions, one ongoing secondary unit project that had already gotten a permit could remain unbuilt, attorney Ben Resnick said.

Resnick represents Mark Judaken, who received the permit in 2014 to build a secondary unit for his father, Len, to live in. The approval of their project was challenged by Woocher in court and led to the judge’s decision that prompted the city to halt secondary unit projects.

Judaken’s project will be considered in the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, separately from the grandfathering ordinance, according Resnick said.

The City Council “already decided it would be unfair to all of the hundreds of people who have spent money to build the second units,” Resnick said, and the same consideration should be given to his client.

–City News Service

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