LocationAlhambra , CA
The saga over the future of Alhambra’s Sikh temple took another turn Monday night as the city’s Planning Commission voted 5-4 that earlier permit approval for the mixed-use development planned to replace the Gurdwara had been “obtained by fraud.”
The vote came after nearly three hours of public testimony from several representatives of the owner and from the Sikh congregation who, in often emotional testimony, painted the facility as a vibrant place of worship and Punjabi education as well as a refuge for the homeless and those struggling with food security issues.
There were also a few tense exchanges between members of the Planning Commission and city staff over legal definitions of the issue at hand and city practices as they relate to the permitting process.
The result of this vote, which was a recommendation for staff action, will be to order the city “to bring back an appropriate resolution at the next meeting, documenting the Planning Commission’s reasons for and against revocation” of the issued permits. That may come as early as the Planning Commission’s next meeting, the first of 2020, scheduled for Jan. 7. Depending on the nature of that resolution, the matter may end up back in hands of the City Council for a final ruling.
The vote, which came as the hour approached 11 pm, was met with whoops and applause in the city council meeting room that at one point was standing-room only with perhaps 100 people, mostly members of the Sikh community, in attendance.
The Sikh Gurdwara issue has been at the forefront of City Hall back and forth for the last few months. In late October, the City Council voted unanimously to send the issue back to the Planning Commission for Monday’s action to clarify key information that led to the approval of the project, including clearing up the matter over the belief that the Sikh Gurdwara was vacant before the Planning Commission took a vote.
The Sikh community has a long history in the city and once owned the building where the Gurdwara is located and where the community has worshipped on and off since the 1970s. But in 2005, seeking to find a larger facility outside Alhambra, they sold the property to the current owner Herald Lau for a reported $625,000.
Much of that community came back to Alhambra in 2015 and Sikh leaders entered into an agreement with Lau to lease the building at 101 S. Chapel Ave. and resume their traditional worship, Punjabi school functions and food service for those in need.
When they returned to Alhambra, the Sikhs signed a one-year lease but chose not to renew the lease at the end of that term and entered instead into a month-to-month rental arrangement. They are, according to testimony Monday night, paying $4,750 a month in rent.
Lau started the permit process with the city in August, 2018 for Design Review with the goal being the development of new mixed-use project on three parcels of land at 101-107 S. Chapel Ave. That project is said to include 28 condominium units. The city’s Design Review board approved the project in November, 2018.
Last June 17, Alhambra’s Planning Commission heard and approved the project on a vote of 7-2 with one member absent. By mid-September concerns were raised about notification to neighbors of the project as well as the Sikh tenants themselves and assertions made to the Planning Commission on the tenancy of the building at 101 S. Chapel Ave.
Representatives for Lau who testified in public comment Monday night said the developer had done several projects with the city, had a good reputation in Alhambra and had no reason to lie or mislead the commission on this project. They also noted that it had been made clear to the Sikh leaders at the time of the sale in 2005 that Lau intended to develop the property.
This point was key to some of the commissioners who, while clearly sympathetic to the Sikhs and the value of the religious community to Alhambra, felt that the main issue here was a landlord-tenant dispute and that fraud was not a part of the equation and there was no reason to reconsider the commission’s previous approval of permits.
To others on the commission, it seemed clear that some untruths had been conveyed on the status and occupancy of the Gurdwara when the permit approval process was first before the Planning Commission.
The Gurdwara was not, in fact, vacant but is the thriving home to a community of more than 300 people who use it multiple times throughout the week. Some commissioners felt this mischaracterization of the tenancy absolutely colored how they proceeded with their thinking during the permitting and voting process.
Commissioners on both sides of the issue took pains to suggest that the property owner Lau had not engaged in “lying” or “fraud” in presenting his earlier case for permits. Some questioned the work of city staff in facilitating the application process with the landlord. Points were raised on the level of actual on-site verification of information contained in the permit applications.
However, answers to some of this questions were difficult to ascertain, city staff members said, because the planning department employee who handled the paperwork is no longer employed by the city.
The city’s notification process to residents of the area was also criticized. One small city notice was affixed to a tree outside the Gurdwara on Chapel Street but the Sikh community enters the facility through the parking lot and not through this entrance so the official notification, they say, had little value in informing them of the landlord’s plans. This notification issue resulted in a tepid initial response on the part of the Sikh community to the permitting efforts by Lau with the city.
Several commissioners on both sides of the issue also asked pointed questions of the Sikh leadership wondering why they had not moved to protect their interest in the Gurdwara by signing a longer lease with Lau or even attempting to buy back the property.
Going into the session Monday night, city staff documents noted that the evening’s session was not a “re-hearing” on the project but stated “the scope of the public hearing is very limited and narrow. The only matter before the Planning Commission is a determination of whether or not there are sufficient grounds to revoke the project entitlements…”
The city staff recommended a course of action for the commission in determining next steps in this matter.
1.) Conduct the public hearing, take testimony from the Applicant and the public and then discuss the matter at issue:
2.) Determine whether the Planning Commission’s approval of Resolution No. 19-30 and Tentative Tract Map TT 82148, Conditional Use Permit CU-18-11, Commercial Planned Development Permit CP-18-8, and Residential Planned Development Permit RP-18-12 was obtained by fraud and
3.) Direct staff to bring back an appropriate resolution at the next meeting, documenting the Planning Commission’s reasons for or against revocation.
Before public testimony, Deputy City Attorney Greg Murphy was pressed by some commissioners to explain the legal standard being applied to this proceeding from previous California cases. There was a bit of frustration on the part of commissioners and Murphy’s repeated efforts to amplify on the standards being used seemed not specific enough.
Against that backdrop, the process moved forward.
The large number of blue comment cards filed with the commission from those wanting to speak led Commission President Allan Sanchez to shorten the public comment to three minutes for each speaker from the standard five. The process, including the final vote, lasted nearly three hours.
After public comment concluded, Sanchez called a 15-minute break before council members deliberated. When the meeting was called back into session Sanchez allowed Lau’s attorney Richard McDonald five minutes for a final summation of his client’s position in the matter.
McDonald said that neither he nor his client at any time wished to diminish the good works or importance of the Sikh community in Alhambra and they fully understood the emotional nature of the issue. But, McDonald said, this was a legal issue adding that the great weight of evidence showed that there was no effort to obtain the permits in a fraudulent manner.
Each of the commissioners then took turns commenting on the matter at hand.
Suzy Dunkel-Soto, the vice president of the planning commission, finally put forth a motion turning the question around with wording saying that the commission determined that the previous permitting process was NOT obtained by fraud. That motion failed on a 5-4 vote and led the way to the final vote that went the other way.
In that tally, Commissioners Ron Sahu, Danny Tang, Eric Garcia, Scott Chan and Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada voted in favor with the four no votes coming from William Yee, Barbara Messina, Dunkel-Soto and Sanchez. Commissioner Debra Moreno Garcia was not present for the meeting.
The Alhambra Source’s coverage of the Alhambra Sikh Gurdwara story was named one of the best local investigative stories of the year by the Institute for Nonprofit News. Read all about it here.
This story was updated on 12/3/19 at 4:47 PM PST to reflect the correct tally of commissioner votes.