LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Alhambra Planning Commission President Allan Sanchez directed staff not to add an agenda item to discuss holding a revocation hearing over a project that would mean the demolition of a Sikh temple in Alhambra, known as the Sikh Community Gurdwara.
Sanchez made this ruling at the commission meeting Monday night after asking Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy what the powers of the Planning Commission president were in adding an agenda item on this issue or blocking such an action. Murphy said that since there was no agenda item for this discussion, the Planning Commission could not decide that night whether to hold a hearing. The president could ask staff to agendize the item, based on whether he hears consensus that the commission wants to discuss holding a revocation hearing. Murphy defined consensus as a “enough of a push by the commissioners to want to entertain the matter in a setting where you can talk about it.” Alhambra’s Department of Community Development staff could also add the item to the agenda if they think there’s consensus. If neither does so, however, the City Council could possibly direct staff to agendize the item.
The discussion started when Deputy Director of Community Development Vanessa Reynoso presented a report addressing concerns that the Planning Commission and members of the public had raised about the development and how it affects the gurdwara. She first addressed concerns about improper notice, saying that the city followed all state requirements, including giving notice to property owners within 300 feet of the proposed project and publishing an announcement in the Pasadena Star News. She said that the city also posted a notice on a parkway tree in front of the gurdwara of the June 17 Planning Commission hearing. She added that the city had added notice policies to address feedback about inadequate notice for projects like this one. These notices include mailed letters to tenants, in addition to property owners, and larger notice signs posted on the property in question.
Reynoso also addressed claims that the property owner misled the Planning Commission by saying that the Sikh gurdwara was vacant. He had actually corrected the record twice, she said, informing the Planning Commission that the Sikh community still worshipped at the temple. She added that the owner is not required to notify tenants that he wants to redevelop his property.
She then addressed the findings for the project, some of which said that the temple was vacant, saying that these did not “materially change the applicant’s request,” again because the property owner corrected the record. She added that the gurdwara will be demolished to make way for the mixed-use development, and will not result in any incompatible land use.
Reynoso finally addressed the question of revocation, saying that revocations are very serious and rare, and are usually initiated by staff based on well documented facts that legally justify such an action. Revocations would come into play if the project involves a use that’s contrary to its conditions of approval, and if the project is so detrimental to public health and safety that it qualifies as a nuisance. A revocation can occur if the an approval is obtained in a fraudulent manner, and should rise to the level of criminal deception. Reynoso said since this situation doesn’t rise to that level, revocation shouldn’t apply.
At least five members of the 10-person Planning Commission said they would support a revocation hearing, or a discussion to hold one even after hearing Reynoso’s report. They said it was important to clarify the conflicting information about the Sikh gurdwara that had come out during and since the June 17 hearing, and to hold project applicants accountable for any misleading information they present in front of the Planning Commission. “My biggest concern with what happened in the past was the explicit representation that these folks were informed of a development, which from what we heard today is not true,” said Commissioner Eric Garcia, before Sanchez announced his decision. “Now that could be corrected in a later hearing if we have that, but that is definitely material fact that calculated in my decision.”
Other commissioners, including Barbara Messina and Suzi Dunkel-Soto, said that while they respect the Sikh community, and wish that the property owner hadn’t presented misleading information, they agreed with staff that there wasn’t a legal basis for the Commission to hold a revocation hearing. “Had we been presented the truth, I would’ve urged that they worked with you in a relocation to find another place,” Dunkel-Soto said.
The Planning Commission voted to approve the development on June 17, after some commissioners asked whether the Sikh gurdwara, which is part of the land to be redeveloped, still had worshippers using the facility. While a staff report said that the gurdwara was vacant, the property owner Herald Lau said during the Planning Commission hearing that the Sikh community was still practicing there, but that they had been informed of his plans. A few weeks later, the president of the Sikh gurdwara, Santokh Singh, said that they had found out about the development after the Planning Commission hearing, and that Lau had never informed them of his plans.
Several members of the public spoke in support of reconsidering the project on Monday, claiming that Lau had misled the Sikh community and the Planning Commission, that the city’s notification procedures were inadequate in notifying the Sikh community about the project, and that the consequences of this meant interfering with the Sikh community’s ability to practice its own religion.
The speakers included Sikh gurdwara members, with one of them saying that even if the gurdwara had received a letter, the few worshippers who live there can’t read English, and would not understand the notice. Santokh Singh was one of the speakers, reiterating that Lau has still never discussed the project with them, despite interacting with him regularly. He also didn’t know how the gurdwara would be able to engage in activities like preparing meals for the homeless community in Los Angeles’ Skid Row without this building. In previous comments to the Alhambra Source, Singh said it would be difficult to find another building with an adequate kitchen to prepare meals for the congregation after services in addition to the meals they prepare for the homeless.
“So please consider all the elements, what you see, [and be] fair with us,” he said, adding that he would respect whatever decision the Planning Commission made.
Sanchez countered some of the public comments, saying that even if one couldn’t read an official notice, that person could make the effort to get it translated. Sanchez maintained that since the Sikh community had previously tried to buy the building from Lau, it meant to him that they could have looked for another building rather than stay in this one.
Sanchez concluded his comments by saying he didn’t hear consensus and asked that staff not agendize the item. Staff took no further action before Sanchez closed the Planning Commission meeting.
The city of Alhambra recently decided to change its notification process in light of complaints from residents over lack of communication over this development, and one at 801 E. Main Street, which the Planning Commission ultimately did not approve. The Sikh community said that the only notice of the project was a small piece of paper wrapped around a tree on a sidewalk in front of the Gurdwara, which nobody saw until it was too late, since worshippers mainly use a back entrance.
Among the changes in the notification process will be larger signs informing residents of upcoming projects. The city will also mail notices directly to tenants, and not just to property owners.
Commissioner Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada asked what recourse the rest of the Planning Commission had in light of Sanchez’s decision. Deputy Director Reynoso said that she didn’t have a specific answer, calling the possibility of revocation “uncharted territory” for the city of Alhambra.
Updated on October 14, 2019.