A Los Angeles Superior Court judge, ruling that residents may not vote twice in less than one year on the same ballot measure, has ordered Hermosa Beach officials to cancel a special election on a proposed 250-room beachfront hotel.
Judge John L. Cole, acting on a petition by residents opposed to the hotel, has barred the special election June 11 despite arguments by the city and developers that the project differs substantially from a proposal narrowly defeated by voters in a referendum last December.
"The differences are differences in detail of the building," Cole said Tuesday in making the ruling. "The project is what is at issue."
Several residents opposed to the bitterly disputed hotel hugged one another and cheered outside the courtroom after the decision. Some talked about launching recall efforts against City Council members who have favored the hotel, while others suggested reviving an initiative effort that would force the sale of the city-owned portion of the beachfront property.
City Will Join Appeal
But developer Joe Langlois, who along with David Greenwood would build the hotel, said they will appeal Cole's decision to the state appellate court Friday. The City Council voted during a closed session Tuesday night to join the appeal.
Three times since 1972 voters have rejected proposed hotel developments on the Strand between 13th and 15th streets, land that includes a one-acre city-owned parcel known as the "Biltmore site." The vacant parcel is the site of a Biltmore hotel which was torn down in the late 1960s.
"The people don't want city participation in this project," said Paul Robinson, a member of the Hotel Referendum Committee, which filed the petition against the election. "They spoke on this issue in December." In addition to use of the Biltmore site, the proposal requires the city to provide up to $20 million in bonds that would be repaid through hotel bed taxes and parking revenue. The estimated cost of the hotel, including the city funds, is $31 million.
Langlois, who will pay for the appeal, said Cole acted improperly when he lumped together "initiatives" and "referendums" under the category of "ballot measures" in invoking the one-year requirement.
"He has simply misread the statute," Langlois said. "The state code has very distinct and separate rules for referendums and initiatives and the judge read them together."
The June ballot measure is an initiative, meaning voters would be asked to consider enacting a proposed ordinance. The initiative calls for approval of a ground lease, development agreement and specific plan for a three-acre site. It was proposed by developers Greenwood and Langlois and was placed on the ballot by a 3-2 vote of the City Council.
In the special election last December, in contrast, voters were asked to approve a development agreement with Greenwood & Langlois that had been enacted into law by the City Council. By voting against the measure, known as a referendum, the voters in effect repealed an ordinance.
But Cole argued that to allow the initiative election would be "a clear thwarting of the legislative intent" in regulating special elections involving initiatives and referendums. He said the state statutes are designed to "prevent repetitive voting until the voters are worn down and vote for something."
In the Hermosa case, he said, it is irrelevant that one special election was called to place a referendum before the voters while the other was called to consider an initiative.
But Hermosa Beach City Atty. James P. Lough, who joined the developers in opposing the petition, agreed with Langlois that state law treats initiatives and referendums separately. The judge, moreover, failed to consider the differences between the December and June hotel proposals, he said.
Lough said the new proposal calls for a half-acre public park (the previous proposal did not include a park), higher annual rent payments to the city for use of the Biltmore site, a four-story hotel that is 15 feet lower than the 54-foot hotel proposed last year and construction of an underground parking garage (the previous proposal called for an above-ground garage).
"The biggest argument previously was to stop the high-rise," he said. "We are talking about a difference of 15 feet. To anyone who lives at the beach, that is a significant difference."
But Sheila Donahue Miller, an opponent of the hotel who represented the petitioners in court, argued that the proposals are essentially identical except for several "perks" added by the developers. "Height was not an issue particularly," she said. "We don't want a hotel on that spot."
Langlois said that if the appeal fails, the developers will consider waiting until December to place the initiative on the ballot. Otherwise, he said, Greewood & Langlois will construct office buildings or other commercial structures on the beachfront land it owns adjacent to the Biltmore site.
City Clerk Kathleen Reviczky said the city will not formally cancel the election until Cole's order has been reviewed by an appeals judge. She said the special election, which costs an estimated $22,000, is being paid for by the developers.