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Emotional Rent Control Board OKs Closure of Santa Monica Trailer Park

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Rusty's Surf

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

July 15, 2013 -- Invoking God and calling the decision “deeply disturbing,” the Santa Monica Rent Control Board reluctantly voted Thursday to allow developers to close the Village Trailer Park, putting an end to nearly seven years of legal battles, red tape and waiting.

The vote, which will allow trailer park part-owner Marc Luzzatto to replace 99 rent-controlled trailer pads with 109 rent-controlled apartments, marked the final administrative hurdle to a 377-unit mixed-use apartment complex near the northeastern edge of the city’s industrial zone.

With a July 12 deadline to make a decision and the threat of litigation looming, Thursday's meeting became emotional at times.

“We have a gun to our head,” said Rent Board member Todd Flora, choking back emotion. “One that is fully loaded and ready to fire.”

When Flora cast his yes vote, he said, “And God forgive me.”

Rent Board member Christopher Walton, who is a lawyer, said, “We are bound to enforce and apply the law fairly. We do not have the authority to change the law or to make arbitrary decisions because a project is unpopular.”

Rent Board member Marilyn Korade-Wilson echoed Walton's sentiments, though she called the situation “deeply disturbing.”

While Rent Board members have expressed concerns about the proposed project near the Expo Light Rail stop slated for the Bergamot area, Rent Board counsel Stephen Lewis reminded them that they only had the authority to decide whether Luzzatto could remove the rent-controlled trailer pads.

Lewis said that since the City Council already approved the Development Agreement (DA) for the project, the Board had no authority to second-guess that decision.

Since Luzzatto's proposal met the Rent Control Charter's requirements that the new development replace all the rent-controlled units it would remove, the Board had no authority to oppose Luzzatto's request for a removal permit, Lewis said.

In a city known for its lengthy and expensive DA negotiation process, the Village Trailer Park case has been an exceptional one.

While State law would have allowed Luzzatto and his partners to close the park by giving tenants a year notice, the City intervened when the project was announced their in 2006.

Developers agreed to keep the park open for the time it took to negotiate a DA in order to allow the remaining residents additional time to move out.

Late in 2012, after much back-and-forth, a City Council with two out-going members approved the project. However, the newly seated Council voted to rescind approval just a few months later because four of the three sitting members believed the project did not provide enough affordable housing.

Luzzatto promptly filed a lawsuit, seeking at $50 million in damages charging the City had failed to honor the 2006 agreement. (“New DA for Santa Monica Trailer Park Could End Two-Month Stalemate,” March 7)

Luzzatto did not hesitate to remind the Board Thursday that he believed not granting the permit would the Rent Control Administration and the City to litigation, since the proposed plan meets the Rent Control Charter's requirements.

Regardless of the legal arguments, the project remains a flashpoint that has bitterly divided Santa Monica residents. Testimony from the public Thursday revealed a community split between those opposed to closing the park and those who favor of the residential development.

One speaker who supported the project said that some of friends who lived in the park will no longer shake his hand.

Opponents of the development leveled personal attacks against Luzzatto and those who disagreed with their position. Those opponents have argued that closing the park would be unfair and potentially dangerous for the park's older residents.

In hopes of assuaging that fear, Luzzatto and his partners offered a variety of relocation options, written into the DA, for residents residing at the park, including buying residents new trailers and paying to install them at the nearby Mountain View Trailer Park.

“Our focus now is to do all that we can to make sure that everyone in the park has an outstanding relocation option,” Luzzatto told The Lookout Friday. “We don't think that residents of the trailer park yet fully grasp how extraordinary their relocation options are.

“The City's relocation consultant will help each and every tenant evaluate the options and pick the right option for them,” he said, adding that residents have already been calling.

Still, for Luzzatto, Thursday's vote was a Pyrrhic victory.

“While I don't think that extracting another 10 rent control units was fair or legally supportable,” he said, “we decided this was one more thing we needed to do to be able to move on with our project.”

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