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Alhambra Planning Commission Deadlocks on Resolution Revoking Permits in Sikh Gurdwara Case

  • Patricia Lau turns to speak to members of the Sikh Gurdwara during her testimony to the Planning Commission.

  • Commissioner Ron Sahu addresses Herald Lau and his representatives. Photo by Helen Arase

  • Santokh Singh, the president of the Sikh Gurdwara, addresses the commission. All 10 members were present at the Feb 11 meeting. Photo by Helen Arase

  • Herald Lau addresses members of the Sikh Gurdwara at the Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 11. Photo by Helen Arase

Location

Alhambra , CA

The special meeting of the Alhambra Planning Commission had just one item on the agenda Tuesday night. Under the heading of Unfinished Business, it was consideration of a resolution for revocation of a tentative tract map and three permits for a project at 101-107 South Chapel Ave.

The 101 South Chapel address is the home of Alhambra’s Sikh Gurdwara. The consideration of findings and resolution was the follow up to the 5-4 vote on December 2, by the Planning Commission that “an element of fraud” had existed in the applicant’s efforts to obtain the permits.

While the meeting Tuesday may have been regarded by some as a formality after the Dec. 2 vote it was anything but a rubber stamp. A vote was needed to approve or reject the resolution  which meant that the issue was still very much in play for the commission, which on Tuesday night was at full ten-member strength.

At the end of the evening, the Commission deadlocked 5-5 on approving the resolution and revoking the existing land use entitlements meaning that the applicant, Herald Lau, retains the permits and that his efforts to build a mixed-use condominium complex on the site may move forward, at least as far as the city is concerned.

That project, as described in the city documents, would be a four-story mixed use commercial/residential project consisting of 28 residential units with a total floor area of 31,488 square feet with one parking level integrated into the building on the ground level.

Much has happened since the December vote. The Sikhs were served with an eviction order days after the “fraud” vote and have retained Dennis P. Block, a noted landlord-tenant attorney to contest it. An effort by city staff to delay consideration of the unfinished business until March, at the request of the applicant, brought protests from a lawyer for the Sikhs at the January 21 Planning Commission meeting and at the January 27 City Council meeting. The issue was ultimately moved up to the special Planning Commission meeting Tuesday night, which was held at Ruth C. Reese Hall at the Alhambra Civic Center Library.

In public and commission comment before the vote, many of the allegations, defenses  and interpretations that led to the earlier fraud vote were restated and reviewed as they related to language in the resolution. Much of the public testimony was emotional. Patricia Lau, the wife of Herald Lau, recounted to the commission how she and her husband came to this country as immigrants.  They struggled in their early years, she said, sleeping on a water bed because that was all they could afford while her husband held dish washing jobs.

Representatives from the Sikh Gurdwara told the commissioners that they too were immigrants trying to achieve a better life in America and that the temple, which has been at that location for 40 years, was sacred to them.

A key voice in the discussion Tuesday was Commissioner Debra Moreno Garcia who was not present at the Dec. 2 meeting, which ended with the 5-4 vote.  Early in her comments, she acknowledged the emotional nature of the matter but noted that it was the duty of the commission to “make its decisions on data” at hand.

And it became clear that her data, her notes, on the June 17, 2019 Planning Commission Meeting, which was a key session in the question of the Gurdwara and occupancy, provided her with a different recollection than  those commissioners who saw fraud in the process.

 She came away from that meeting, she said, with the clear understanding that the Gurdwara was occupied and therefore there was no attempt by the applicant to mislead. 

 Repeating much of his view from Dec. 2, Commissioner Ron Sahu saw it differently and was critical of the applicant Lau and his representatives for not being explicit in detailing the situation at the Gurdwara.

 “They were giving every opportunity to unequivocally say the Gurdwara was in use and failed to do so several times,” Sahu said. “I regret that we are at this point,” Sahu added, “but process matters.”

After lengthy back and forth, Sahu put forth a motion, seconded by Commissioner Eric Garcia to adopt the resolution with three changes in language that Garcia has suggested.  None of  the changes  passed muster with the full commission and the motion failed on a 5-5 vote.. A second vote, retaining the city’s official language in the resolution, also ended with a 5-5 vote. 

Voting for the resolution were: Scott Chan, Eric Garcia, Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada, Ron Sahu and Danny Tang.

Voting against the resolution were: Allan Sanchez, the commission president; Suzy Dunkel-Soto, the commission vice president and commission members Barbara Messina, William Yee and Debra Moreno Garcia.

Linda Paquette, a lawyer for the Sikhs who was unable to be at the Tuesday night meeting due to a scheduling conflict, expressed surprise at the outcome in comments to Alhambra Source on Wednesday.

She said she had expected that this would be a ministerial meeting confirming the action of Dec. 2 and not, in effect, a “redo” of the vote with the full commission present.

She said she was going to explore options going forward adding that we are “definitely going to be challenging this,” possibly again to the City Council. Alhambra provides for a ten-day window for an aggrieved party in such cases to file a challenge. 

She also said that this won’t change the Sikh’s defense in their efforts to stop the eviction order.  And she again reiterated that this was a “retaliatory” step by the owner for a protected action, that being the Sikh’s effort to oppose the permits. 

A full PDF of the Planning Commission agenda with supporting documents and background material can be found here.

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