A judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a Long Beach property owner and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association that challenged the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance in which landowners are charged a monthly fee for letting their property sit vacant.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Goorvitch heard arguments Wednesday on the city’s motion to toss plaintiff Frederic Sparrevohn’s case, took the issues under submission and ruled in favor of the city on Thursday.
“The dispute in this case stems from whether the fee is imposed as an incident of property ownership,” the judge wrote. “The court answers this question in the negative.”
In Sparrevohn’s case, the fee he paid was not imposed based on normal ownership and normal use of the lots, but instead on the lots being vacant, so there was not a burden on him based on his being a land owner, according to the judge, who also said only a small number of parcels in the city are subject to the fee.
“The court has considered plaintiffs’ counsel’s arguments and finds none to have merit,” Goorvitch wrote.
The tax-fighting organization and Sparrevohn brought the suit in April 2022, seeking a declaration that the ordinance is void “unless and until it is properly noticed, properly substantiated, and properly approved.”
Sparrevohn also sought a $780 refund of the fee he paid for 2022 under protest.
“In over 20 years of owning (the lot in the 300 block of UltimoAvenue), no one has suggested to me, formally or informally, that my lots decrease neighboring property values,” the 79-year-old Sparrevohn stated in a sworn declaration.
The city approved the fee in 2017 in the hope it would discourage illegal dumping and blight and encourage property owners to turn their vacant plots into gardens and farms.
Sparrevohn’s appeal to the city for relief was denied in March 2022, according to the suit. He says the city has made it too costly for him to develop the property.
“I bought the lot with hopes to build a home for (my) family so that we can afford to stay together,” Sparrevohn said. “We have simply been unable to build yet due to the variety of costs, including the high costs of permits.”
Sparrevohn has paid the annual property taxes, kept the lot litter-free and had it mowed about every other week at annual cost of $420, according to the suit.
The fee, which pays for city monitoring of the vacant lots, requires proper notice to the public and approval by a majority of the affected property owners or by two-thirds of the electorate, according to the suit.
“Having no such approval, the fee is unconstitutional,” according to the suit.
The charge duplicates the municipal code for weed and debris abatement and targets undeveloped property owners with a punitive fee that owners of other parcels do not pay, the suit alleged.
The city has not shown that it requires more work for its code enforcement officers to observe what it categorizes as vacant lots as compared to all other lots under its primary enforcement ordinances, for which it charges nothing, the suit stated.
However, Lisa Fall, the city’s bureau manager for the Administration and Financial Services Bureau of the Long Beach Development Services Department, said in her own sworn statement that neglected vacant lots have often become sites for illegal dumping, motor home parking, homeless camping, drug activity, equipment storage and generally unsafe conditions.
“And in fact, plaintiff Sparrevohn’s vacant lot … has contributed to these problems,” according to Fall, who further said the vacant lots can, contrary to Sparrevohn’s assertion, lower neighborhood property values.
The vacant lot monitoring program’s success is proven by the reduction of cases opened during the past three years due to increased property maintenance, according to Fall.