The House of Yahweh's plans to expand its soup kitchen suffered a blow Wednesday when the Lawndale Planning Commission voted 3-1 to deny the charitable agency's request for an exemption to a building regulation.
Construction on the agency's two-story addition was halted last month after city officials discovered they had overlooked a requirement that the property be set back 10 feet from the sidewalk.
"I can live with the law, but I feel that plenty of information was given to (support) a variance," Sister Michele Morris, the House of Yahweh's executive director, said Thursday. "I feel we're caught up in a bureaucratic trap and the whims of people."
The addition to the House of Yahweh, which is near City Hall, was intended to provide showers and bathrooms for the homeless.
House of Yahweh attorney David Nakahara said after the vote Wednesday that he would appeal the decision to the City Council by the end of the week.
Ground was broken two months ago, and the site had been excavated for the footings when officials discovered that the building would be too close to the sidewalk.
The error was brought to their attention by Norman Wilson, a neighboring businessman who was angry that the soup kitchen was not being held to the same rules that he had been asked to comply with 10 years ago.
City officials found that planners had applied the proper commercial zoning requirements when they issued the building permit but had failed to include the stricter setback requirements of the civic overlay zone, which encompasses several blocks around City Hall.
Attorney Byron R. Lane told the commission Wednesday that the city has no right to interfere with the soup kitchen's construction plans because the nonprofit agency already had spent more than $17,000 to prepare the site.
Compared to other sites in the neighborhood, the property is very small; the "entire project may be in jeopardy if a setback provision of 10 feet is enforced," Lane said.
Architect Dean Andrews, who designed the building, told the commission that the agency would have to spend $20,000 to make up new plans and predicted the commission's decision would delay the project at least another year.
In turning down the request, however, newly appointed Commissioner Melissa Bergstrom disagreed that the site was smaller than any other property in the area and said she believed granting a variance to the project "would signify special privileges" and is therefore not legally sound.
Commissioner Alan Constantino, who supported granting a variance, agreed that "if you stick to the letter of the law . . . there is reason to rule against (a variance) and deny it." But, he added, "I'd like to strongly urge the commissioners to consider the social use of these facilities."
After the vote, Bergstrom proposed asking the City Council to consider an ordinance that would exempt nonprofit organizations in the civic overlay zone from the 10-foot setback requirements.
The commission later agreed to have a staff member write a memo asking the council to place the ordinance on its agenda as an urgency item. Commission Chairman Bruce McKee said he would suggest that the city reimburse the House of Yahweh for its losses.