Koretz’s 50-Foot Height Variance Shot Down By Superior Court

This article was written by Matt Lopez and published by the Beverly Hills Courier

Local residents fighting back against out of control megamansion construction scored a big victory last week. 

L.A. Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell last Friday ruled that the Los Angeles City Council relied on improper evidence to grant a 50-foot height variance for a 27,000 square foot house at 360 N. Stone Canyon Rd. in Bel-Air. 

Judge O’Donnell said the findings adopted by the City Council were based on a declaration submitted by developer M&A Gabaee’s engineer, rather than actual evidence before the Zoning Administrator, which is the only evidence the City Council can consider. 

Earlier this year, fifth district L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz asserted jurisdiction, pursuant to L.A. Charter Section Section 245, for a 50- foot height variance at the project. 

Koretz granted the variance over the objections of the West Los Angeles Planning Commission, which denied the request in a unanimous decision.  The actions were on behalf of Mark and Arman Gabay, who are also planning to build a 42,409 square foot residence on an adjacent lot.

A variance allows a property owner to exceed the zoning height limit only if all five of the very specific code requirements are shown by evidence presented to the zoning administrator.

The L.A. City Council repeatedly cited as the basis for its findings the declaration from Gabaee's engineer, a declaration that was submitted to the council more than six months after the January 2013 hearing before Associate Zoning Administrator Jim Tokunaga. The judge's decision states that the council is ordered to “excise” this evidence from its findings and file a response to the court's order by March 27 to clarify the findings. 

When Tokunaga denied the height variance, he wrote that none of the five required variance findings could be made. The developer appealed Tokunaga's decision to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, which heard the appeal in June 2013 and voted unanimously to adopt Tokunaga's findings and deny the appeal. 

The L.A. City Council asserted jurisdiction over the developer's appeal. The declaration from Gabaee's engineer was submitted, and the council voted in July 2013 to send the appeal back to the Area Planning Commission for reconsideration. The commission held a second hearing in August, analyzed the evidence, and unanimously voted again to deny the appeal. It also adopted additional findings showing why the variance could not be granted. 

At Koretz's request, the council took jurisdiction over the appeal a second time and voted in September 2013 to grant the height variance, adopting findings prepared by the developer based on the declaration from its engineer. In December 2013 a suit was filed against the city of Los Angeles and the developer to overturn the variance. 

The judge’s decision means the matter will now be sent back to the L.A. City Council. While the council could again try to justify the variance, it will now be asked to do so without the evidence the judge determined to be improper in their adopted findings. 

“We are pleased with the Judge's decision,” said attorney Victor Marmon, who is representing resident Janice Lazarof, who protested the variance. “The council can try again to justify the variance, but without the evidence the judge ruled was improper, it is clear from the record that they will not be able to support their findings.”