The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is joining with a Long Beach property owner in challenging the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance that charges landowners a monthly fee for letting their property sit vacant.
The anti-tax organization and Frederic Sparrevohn brought the suit Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking a declaration that the ordinance is void “unless and until it is properly noticed, properly substantiated, and properly approved.”
Sparrevohn also is seeking a $780 refund of the fee he paid for 2022 under protest.
A representative for the Long Beach City Attorney’s Office would not comment on the suit, saying the city has not yet been served and has not yet reviewed the complaint.
The city approved the fee in 2017, which was meant to discourage illegal dumping and encourage vacant lot owners to join the city’s new Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone program. That program’s goal was to provide opportunities for economic growth, community development, as well as increase access to local organic produce while reducing blight on vacant properties, according to the city.
Vacant lot owners interested in the program would get matched with local farmers and gardeners to run agricultural programs on eligible lots.
“This initiative supports sustainability within our community by helping to increase access to healthy foods for residents and reducing emissions from food transportation,” then-Councilmember Lena Gonzalez said in a statement at the time.
Sparrevohn, 78, owns a vacant lot on Ultimo Avenue and his appeal to the city for relief was denied on March 21, according to the suit. He bought the lot hoping to build a family home, but the city sought significant costs for plan review, geological investigation, police impact, fire impact, parks impact and other issues, the suit states.
“I gave up on building for myself and decided it would be nice if I could save it for my kids so that someday they might be able build there and not have to leave California for a more affordable place to live,” Sparrevohn wrote in a letter to the city.
He 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 alleges.
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 states.
“Without proof presented to the public that monitoring the selected parcels costs an extra $780 per year per parcel, the fee is void,” according to the suit.
Staff writer Anthony Pignataro contributed to this report.
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