NORCO — For more than a year and a half, Louis deBottari fought to halt development of a housing tract along the bluffs overlooking the Santa Ana River.
In pursuing a lawsuit to force a public vote on the project, the former councilman said he was trying to protect not only the restrictive zoning standards of this rural-residential city but also the constitutional right of California residents to challenge zoning decisions by elected officials.
Last week, however, the California Supreme Court let stand the decisions of two lower courts--and a majority of the Norco City Council--blocking deBottari's bid to hold a citywide referendum on the issue. It marked the end of his battle against development of nearly 100 homes on 10,000-square-foot lots in northern Norco.
Although construction has already begun, deBottari and his allies say the issue of small-lot zoning is not dead. They predict it will figure prominently in municipal elections next year.
That prediction fuels charges by deBottari's opponents that his lawsuit was politically motivated from the start, an attempt to begin rallying opposition to three incumbent City Council members facing reelection next November.
Their votes to allow the small-lot development--where homes will sell for $125,000 or more--will have no effect on patterns of residential development in Norco, the council members said.
Norco's zoning generally requires single-family homes to be on lots of at least 20,000 square feet--slightly less than half an acre--to allow animal-keeping and to preserve the city's prized "rural atmosphere."
But the 52 acres at the center of the dispute never were zoned for animal-keeping, said Howard Hanzlik, the property's former owner. A pair of City Council votes in June, 1984, reduced the tract's minimum lot size from 18,000 to 10,000 square feet, he said, to make it consistent with an adjoining subdivision.
Called Isolated Area
"That made sense to the city," Hanzlik said in September, "because the land was so isolated from the already developed horse ranches. . . . All the remaining (residential) land in Norco is under the general plan calling for half-acre horse lots."
Ronald Cano, deputy city manager, agreed: "There's no ramifications at all for development in the city in general," he said, because the zoning change for Hanzlik's former property did not affect other parts of the city.
DeBottari and others, however, fear that the council has set a precedent that could pave the way for more small-lot development, particularly when Norco, as planned, expands its northern borders to include several dairies.
Small-lot homeowners could eventually outnumber those with animals, they reason, and unite to push animal-keeping out of the city.
Not Put to Voters
As a result, opponents of the northern Norco subdivision organized a petition drive to overturn the City Council's June, 1984, decision. But the council--and later the courts--refused to put the question to the voters.
The petitioners' mistake, City Atty. Barry Brandt said, was in attacking the zone change rather than the amendment--passed at the same meeting--to the city's general land-use plan.
Under state law, a city's zoning must be consistent with its general plan. A reversal of the council's zoning change would cause the area to revert to its old zoning, leaving it inconsistent with the broader land-use plan and thus in violation of state law, Brandt advised the council.
"Had they done it correctly in the first place," said Mayor R. L. (Dick) MacGregor, "they would not have been asking the council to do something illegal."
Judges in Riverside County Superior Court and the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Bernardino agreed with the city's position, and the state Supreme Court has now refused to reconsider their decisions.
"This is the end," deBottari said of the high-court decision. "It means that the people of California are going to have more trouble with city council (members who) think they are emperors."
The Norco City Council, despite doubts about the zoning referendum's legality, should have accepted the petitions and allowed a vote, deBottari said. The legal and financial burden of challenging the referendum would then have fallen upon the property owners and developers, rather than the taxpayers, he added.
DeBottari's own stint on the council lasted about a year and a half, until he was recalled in 1973 because of his opposition to the construction of Interstate 15 through the city.
Defeated in Subsequent Races
He has since run for the council three times. As a write-in candidate in 1976, deBottari finished fourth in a field of six candidates for two seats. He placed eighth out of 11 candidates for three seats in 1978, and fifth of seven candidates seeking three seats in 1982.
Although the high court has refused to hear his arguments, deBottari believes his lawsuit may contribute to a new political awareness among Norco residents, who are fiercely protective of their rural life style.