ALHAMBRA — In what city officials say may be a first, three of the five City Council members say they cannot vote on a proposed apartment complex because of conflicts of interest, thereby leaving the city in a quandary about what to do next.
"In 34 years on the council, I've never seen anything like this," said Councilman Talmage V. Burke. There have been occasions when conflicts kept two council members from voting, but never three, he said.
A decision on whether to grant the permit for residential planned development was delayed until the council meets Monday so that the city attorney can decide how to proceed.
Former Owner Sued
To complicate matters, the developer has filed a lawsuit against a former owner of the land on which the apartments would be built, accusing him of "using his influence and contacts" to induce the Planning Commission to vote to deny the permit. The commission rejected the permit application by an 8-2 vote in December, but the developer appealed to the City Council.
The suit, filed on behalf of Atlantic Villa Development, alleges that Joe (Peppy) Sciarra Jr., the former owner of the land and the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, wants the project killed so that he can repurchase the land and build a shopping center. Sciarra owns and operates a meat market next to the proposed apartment complex.
The allegations "are absolutely untrue," said Malcolm George Smith, Sciarra's attorney. Sciarra did oppose the project when it was considered by the Planning Commission, but did not exert improper influence, Smith said.
Fred Burkardt, Planning Commission president and one of those who voted against the project, said he is well acquainted with Sciarra and sees him frequently at community events. But, he said, Sciarra never mentioned the apartment complex before speaking at the Planning Commission meeting.
Atlantic Villa Development, a limited partnership based in Buena Park, wants to build a 34-unit apartment complex at 516 N. Atlantic Blvd.
City officials now are trying to figure out how to form a quorum so that the council can vote on the project.
A spokeswoman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission said that the city of Petaluma faced a similar dilemma in 1978. When conflicts of interest deprived the Petaluma council of a quorum, the state commission advised council members with the conflicts to draw straws to determine the one vote necessary to restore a quorum.
City Atty. Leland Dolley said he will examine each council member's concerns to determine if they actually have a conflict that should keep them from voting. If all three must abstain, Dolley said, he will determine whether the council may act with just two members or must first obtain a quorum.
May Have Conflicts
Burke, Mayor Michael Blanco and Councilwoman Mary Louise Bunker informed Dolley last week that they may have conflicts that under state law could prohibit them from voting.
Blanco and Burke said they asked Dolley to decide whether they should vote on the matter because of Sciarra's involvement. Blanco, an attorney, said he has done legal work for Sciarra. Burke, also an attorney, said he handled the probate of the estate of the mother of Sciarra's business partner, Robert Halbert.
Bunker said she is the beneficiary of a family trust that owns property near the apartment and the value of that property could be affected by improvements around it.
Atlantic Villa Development is seeking permission to construct three-story structures on an L-shaped lot bounded by Alhambra Road, 3rd Street and Atlantic Boulevard. The building would have parking garages on the bottom level and apartments on the second and third floors.
Would Clear Site
The developers would tear down a nine-unit apartment court and five houses to clear the property.
The Planning Commission rejected a permit for the project after businessmen, including Sciarra, and residents complained that the project had too many apartment units and would increase traffic.
Attorney Douglas R. Ring filed a lawsuit Jan. 16 in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Atlantic Villa Development.
The suit charges that Sciarra, "a well known and influential person in the Alhambra community, purposefully used his influence and contacts with the Planning Commission to induce the Planning Commission to deny plaintiff's plans."
The suit does not specify how Sciarra allegedly influenced the commission and Ring did not return phone calls. Atlantic Villa Development is seeking $750,000 in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages from Sciarra.
Sciarra, 61, lives in Arcadia and has run Peppy's Choice Meats in Alhambra for 29 years.
Suit Says Property Sold
He formerly owned the property on which the apartments would be built, according to the lawsuit. The suit says Sciarra sold the property in 1980 to the Gold Plate Co., which then sold it to Atlantic Villa Development last September for $750,000.
Before selling the land, Sciarra obtained a zoning change that converted the property from commercial to residential use. The suit alleges that Sciarra wants to re-acquire the property to develop a shopping center and "commenced a course of conduct intended to destroy plaintiff's investment, render the property valueless, and compel plaintiff to resell the property to him for a nominal sum."
Smith, Sciarra's attorney, said his client has no interest in re-acquiring the property for a shopping center, and opposes the apartment project because of the traffic congestion it would create.