A developer who has gained prominence in the art world faces arraignment this week on 15 counts of criminal violation of Santa Monica municipal codes, city officials said.
The misdemeanor charges stem from events that developer Abby Sher staged at her newly constructed Edgemar museum-restaurant complex on Main Street in Santa Monica.
An attorney for Sher, Charles R. English, denied wrongdoing and said the charges were the result of a misunderstanding.
In a complaint filed in Municipal Court, the city alleges that on six separate occasions Sher allowed the Edgemar complex to be used even though she had not been issued an occupancy permit, which is required before a new building can be used.
Sher also failed to obtain valid fire permits for events at the building, the complaint alleges.
The complaint also contains three separate charges of failing to obtain or possess a valid business license when the restaurant part of the complex was allegedly used as museum and exhibition space.
All of the alleged violations occurred during an eight-month period last year when several preview art shows and open houses were staged at Edgemar, a two-story building designed by noted architect Frank Gehry and built around an interior patio that houses the private Santa Monica Museum of Art and other retail space.
English said Sher felt she had "at least de facto permission" to go ahead with limited operations at the building. He contended that she had in fact retained fire marshals and obtained numerous permits and that the building had undergone several inspections.
"The project as a whole will show we have done everything in our power to comply with the statutes," English said. The only thing holding up the final occupancy permit had been ramps to give access to the disabled, he said, but "everything else had been signed off on."
He blamed much of the dispute on one or two residents who live near the project and want it stopped.
Officials said the charges were based on information from neighbors' complaints, on-site inspections and police reports.
They said they are often able to work out problems with developers but chose to file charges in this case because the alleged violations were repeated numerous times and despite warnings.
"The message we are trying to send is: You cannot flagrantly violate city ordinances, and professed ignorance of the law is no justification," said City Atty. Robert M. Myers.
"Clearly, the number and nature (of alleged violations) is what gave rise to us feeling it appropriate to file a criminal complaint."
Planning Director Paul Berlant said Sher had obtained some temporary-use permits but only for parts of the complex. He said it had been made clear to Sher that she would have to obtain a final permit, called a certificate of occupancy.
The museum is scheduled to open formally in May, and Sher is seeking a restaurateur. An ice cream parlor has already opened, and a bakery is planned.
The Edgemar project has had a somewhat rocky history because of persistent protests from neighbors who feared that it would bring noise and traffic into the Ocean Park neighborhood.
The neighbors, city officials and Sher negotiated for months over how to resolve the differences. Sher was required to install sound buffers and meet other conditions.
At least until now, Sher seemed to enjoy good standing with city officials, most of whom praise the project for bringing an innovative and well-respected museum to Santa Monica.
Mayor Dennis Zane, while declining to comment on the criminal charges, lamented that relations between the developer and neighbors had not been better.
"The city has been willing to go an extra mile to make things work," Zane said, "because the museum is such a wonderful community amenity that we all support.
"There have been special efforts to make it work, but we can't help being troubled by problems that have continued to occur."
The arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday. English said he would either enter a not-guilty plea or seek a continuance.
If found guilty, Sher faces fines of up to $500 for each count plus additional penalties.