Topanga Association for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles, Supreme Court of California (1974)

Facts:
The dispute concerns a 28-acre property in Topanga Canyon, located in the Santa Monica Mountains region of Los Angeles County. The property is zoned for light agricultural and single-family residences with a one-acre minimum lot size. The property is hilly and contains one single-family residence. Aside from an area immediately to the southeast, which included an old flood-damaged subdivision and a few commercial structures, the surrounding properties consisted exclusively of scattered single-family residences. The owner was granted a variance to establish a 93-space mobile home park on the site. The appellant-petitioner, the Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (an incorporated nonprofit organization composed of taxpayers and owners of property in the canyon), opposed the variance. The proposed mobile home park would leave 30% of the site in its natural state and an additional 25% would be landscaped and terraced to blend in with the surroundings. The plan called for rechanneling a portion of Topanga Canyon Creek and anticipated the requirement to dedicate an 80-foot-wide strip of the property to a proposed realignment of Topanga Creek Boulevard. The development allegedly would help to satisfy the growing demand for new, low cost housing in the area, could serve to attract further investment to the region, and could provide a much needed fire break. In addition, the owners could generate significantly greater profits from a trailer park than single-family homes. The construction of single-family homes would require extensive grading and 78 feet high fill for the proposed highway. In addition to the general character of the area, flood problems and “the nature of the inhabitants” would make the area unattractive to people interested in single-family homes.

Procedure:
The variance was appealed, without success, to the county board of supervisors.
[Other decisions from lower courts were not discussed.]

Issue:
Was the zoning variance supported by administrative findings, which demonstrate that because of special circumstances applicable to the property, including size, shape, topography, location or surroundings, the strict application of the zoning ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under identical zoning classifications, and do the findings support the conclusion that all applicable legislative requirements for a variance have been satisfied?

Holding:
The finding of the county board of supervisors was reversed. The rezoning was disallowed.

Rationale:
The court found that the data contained in the planning commissions report focused almost exclusively on the qualities of the property for which the variance was sought, lacking comparative information about the surrounding properties to demonstrate that the owner of the property was being deprived of privileges being enjoyed by other property owners in the vicinity. The claim that the development would serve community needs was not relevant to the case at hand.

In addition, the granting of a variance for a parcel this large is also very unlikely to be legitimate in the absence of unusual circumstances, since it is unlikely that such a large parcel will be unrepresentative of the area in general. Granting a variance for a parcel of this size will begin to radically alter the character of the entire zone, which is properly dealt with through legislation, not piecemeal administrative adjudication.