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Alhambra City Council Sends Development Affecting Sikh Temple Back to Planning Commission

A priest leads the prayer at Alhambra's Sikh Gurdwara in July. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra’s City Council voted unanimously Monday night to send the issue of a large development that would have resulted in the demolition of a Sikh temple back to the planning commission for a revocation hearing.

Multiple council members said they supported the measure, to clarify key information that led to the planning commission’s approval of the project, including clearing up the messaging over the belief that the Alhambra Sikh Gurdwara was vacant before the planning commission took a vote.

The Council also supported sending this back, due to the feelings of many of the planning commissioners that they would like to reconsider the development. They wanted both parties to get a fair hearing, including the property owner, and the Sikh community who now rent the space and said they found out about the project after the planning commission approval. The Gurdwara maintains that their lack of knowledge of the measure left them unable to participate in the planning commission’s initial hearing on the project.

Councilmember Jeff Maloney made the motion to send the project back to the planning commission, with David Mejia seconding. Katherine Lee, who is on a leave of absence through October, was the only councilmember not present for the vote.

The planning commission would have to decide whether the project permits were obtained in a fraudulent manner in order to be able to revoke them. A date for the hearing has not yet been determined.

Before the project was approved, there was confusion over whether there was still an active Sikh community at the Gurdwara, a mixed-use commercial and residential development, at 101 and 107 S. Chapel Ave, with a staff report prepared ahead of the project’s June 17 planning commission hearing saying that the building was vacant. The property owner Herald Lau said during the hearing after repeated questions from the commission that the Gurdwara was still active, but that he had informed the Sikh community of his plans. The Alhambra Sikh Gurdwara maintains that Lau never mentioned the new project to them, despite interacting with him on a regular basis.

The Sikh community also said the city failed to inform them of this project, and only saw a small paper notice on a sidewalk tree near an entrance they do not use after the hearing date had passed. The city has since changed notification procedures to include large lawn signs instead of paper notices, and mailing notices to tenants, in addition to property owners.

On Oct. 7, multiple planning commissioners said they were interested in conducting a hearing to discuss whether to revoke their approval of the project. Deputy Director of Community Development Vanessa Reynoso presented a memo to the commission saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to support revocation. Planning Commission President Allan Sanchez directed staff not to bring back this item on those grounds, but after community members appealed to the City Council a week later, the Council decided to place a discussion on Monday’s agenda over whether to direct the Planning Commission to undertake a revocation hearing.

Lau was one of the first to speak during public comment. He said that he purchased the building at 101 S. Chapel Ave from the Alhambra Sikh Gurdwara in 2005, and then rented the building to current Gurdwara president Santokh Singh starting in 2015, with the understanding that their presence there would be temporary, given his plans to develop the land. He said that after signing a one-year lease, the Gurdwara opted not to renew the lease for another year, but to go month-to-month, underscoring their understanding that they would have to find a permanent place of worship.

Lau also said that he corrected city staff when they said the Gurdwara was vacant during the June 17 Planning Commission hearing.

Lau’s attorney Richard McDonald also spoke before the City Council, saying that there was no evidence of project permits being obtained fraudulently. The city followed the rules in informing residents of the project, he said. He added that Lau was within his rights as a landlord with a month-to-month agreement with Singh to not give him notice of the development until 30 days before he needed the Gurdwara to vacate the property.

McDonald also questioned the legality of the City Council agendizing discussion of a project that the Planning Commission had approved, and which nobody had appealed within 10 days, as required by the city’s municipal code. “Four months later, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on plan check, and there’s no consideration of the fairness and equity to the property owner that followed all your procedures to the T?” he asked.

Councilmember Maloney said that by his understanding, the City Council doesn’t have to judge whether there was evidence of fraud in obtaining approval. Rather, the Council only had to decide whether to allow the Planning Commission to consider the evidence.

Maloney also said the dispute seemed to lie within the tenant-landlord relationship, which the City Council could not formally get involved in. Still, he hoped that both sides could be fairly heard, and that the parties involved could work together to find a resolution.

“I think that the Gurdwara deserves a hearing at the planning commission, and in that timeline, I hope that the two parties can come together and figure something out that’s meaningful and is workable for both sides,” said Maloney.

Several members of the Gurdwara and their supporters publicly asked the City Council to send the development back to the Planning Commission during public comment. Gurdwara President Singh said that it was true that his community was offered a one-year lease before going for a month-to-month rental. Still, he wanted the Planning Commission to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. “People are so much attached emotionally to this building,” he said.

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