SAN FRANCISCO — A unique "senior zoning" system in Riverside County, in which housing in certain areas is reserved by law for residents 55 and older, was reinstated Wednesday by a federal appeals court.
A federal judge overturned the zoning in July 1996, saying that it violated a California age discrimination law, and rejected an attempt by the Legislature to reinstate it. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the legislative measure and said the county could revive the zoning system, subject to further legal challenges.
State and federal housing laws, which bar discrimination based on age or family status, contain exemptions for senior citizen housing that meets certain standards. But Riverside County is the only area in California that has set aside areas in which all housing must be for those 55 and over.
The zoned areas, which include Sun City, probably contain 7,000 to 8,000 housing units, said James D. Smith, a lawyer for a family that sued the county. Douglas A. Gibson, who has two children, inherited a home in Sun City in 1991 and filed the suit in 1994 after being served with several notices of zoning violations.
U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin ruled in July 1996 that the zoning ordinances violated a 1994 state law forbidding local zoning that discriminated on the basis of age. Three days later, in response to his ruling, the Legislature passed a new law, effective in 1997, that expressly allowed Riverside County to enforce zoning rules for senior housing that were passed before 1995.
Timlin ruled the new law invalid, saying that it was an attempt to change the law retroactively and violated a state constitutional rule that gives zoning authority to local governments rather than the state.
But the appeals court, in a 3-0 ruling, said the state was not trying to impose its own zoning rules and was merely letting the county enforce its own rules. The court also said the new law may not apply retroactively, to residents under 55 who were living in senior-zoned areas before 1997, but could be applied to those who sought to move in after the law passed.
The court said Timlin must decide how the state law affects those who, like the Gibsons, moved in before 1997. Timlin must also consider the effect of other California laws that "implicitly allow senior-only zoning," said the opinion by Judge Stephen Trott.
Smith, lawyer for the Gibsons, said he disagreed with the ruling and may appeal further but considered it "a very small issue in a very large case."
He contended that the Riverside zoning ordinances violate the conditions for senior citizen housing in the state Fair Employment and Housing Act. That law allows owners to reserve housing units for at least one resident 55 or older but also specifies that certain people under 55 can live in the home, such as a spouse, a disabled child or a child who supports the parents, Smith said.