Malibu West couple wins important case against City of Malibu

Beginning in 2016, new California laws have made it easier for residents to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), also called a “granny flat,” on their property — a self-contained living unit averaging 750 square feet. The state hoped ADUs would help alleviate housing shortages and high housing prices, providing places to live for family members, students, in-home health care providers, the disabled, and others at below-market prices within existing neighborhoods. 

Although hundreds of California communities, including nearby Agoura Hills, Calabasas, and the unincorporated parts of LA County, have written their own ADU ordinances incorporating the state’s new rules, Malibu has not. A Planning Commission public hearing on the city’s proposed ADU ordinance was scheduled for Nov. 21, but is now postponed until “winter 2023.” 

In July 2020, Malibu West couple Jason and Elizabeth Riddick decided to apply for an ADU with the City of Malibu. They wanted to create a place for Elizabeth’s elderly mother, Renee Sperling, who suffers from various health problems, including glaucoma, arthritis, asthma, and osteoporosis.

Their initial plan called for a small ADU in the backyard of their single-family residence in Malibu West, plus a minor addition to their home. Jason, an attorney, read the applicable statutes and concluded that their project was exempt from needing a Coastal Development Permit (CDP). Both the Planning Commission and City Council disagreed and denied the application. At least two City Councilmembers insinuated that the couple was only trying to add square footage to their house. 

The Riddicks eventually filed a modified ADU plan that didn’t add any square feet to the main residence, and requested an administrative review. The city still insisted the couple needed a CDP and refused to review the new application. 

“The city’s approach is ‘No, no, no, block, block, block,’” Jason observed. “They refused to ever explain themselves or respond to the detailed arguments we were making. It’s not a nuanced, thoughtful approach — just aggressive and nearsighted. Our ADU is not commercial development. Our project is the poster child for environmental responsibility and being within the neighborhood character; with everyone’s support. Allowing small scale, low-impact ADUs is the best free-market-oriented way to provide more housing options in Malibu while still retaining our rural character.”

The Riddicks secured the pro bono legal services of Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) on the CDP issue, and the case went to LA County Superior Court. The final ruling was made by Judge Mark A. Young on July 26.

It all came down to two simple questions 1) whether the new ADU structure met the requirements of California law and 2) whether it was attached to the main house or detached from the main house. In the Riddicks’ case, it was legally compliant and attached to the main house.

Malibu’s LIP specifically states that certain improvements to “existing single-family residences,” including “all fixtures and structures directly attached,” are exempt from needing a CDP. A detached “guest house or … residential unit” still needs a CDP.

The court noted that the city “never adopted a formal regulation interpreting the [state’s ADU] statute.” 

The court cited the fact that the Coastal Commission issued memos to guide coastal city governments like Malibu (from April 2017 to April 2020) on implementing state ADU law in the coastal zone. Until the commission abruptly changed course in 2022 after a meeting with the city, its guidance consistently stated that the construction or conversion of an [ADU] contained within or directly attached to an existing single-family residence was exempt from a CDP.

The City of Malibu argued that “the creation of a self-contained living unit in the form of an ADU is not an ‘improvement’ — it’s the creation of a new residence, whether attached or detached.”

However, the court concluded that “the statute fits the Riddick interpretation far better than [Malibu’s] interpretation”… and is bolstered by the virtually identical provision contained in the Coastal Act.” The court referred to the city’s attorneys’ positions taken in the lawsuit as “unreasonable” and “contradictory.” 

The judge pointed out that the city is legally obligated to review an ADU application within 60 days of deeming it complete.

Following the Riddicks’ legal victory, Malibu ignored the court ruling that no CDP was required for them, so PLF asked the judge to make a motion to enforce it. 

“The City appears to be taking advantage of the fact that the 60-day review window doesn’t begin until it receives a completed application,” they wrote. “So they never say it’s complete.” In addition, the PLF attorneys basically accuse the city of trying to dupe the Riddicks into starting all over again with a new application by saying the procedures were changed.

But not even a State statute could require applicants to start all over again, and the city’s informal update to an application process certainly cannot, PLF argued. 

“They still refuse to state definitively whether the Riddicks’ application is now complete, and haven’t started review as required by State law and Court mandate,” the firm wrote. “All these actions [are] a deliberate attempt to stave off the running of the clock and the effect of this Court’s judgment.”

PLF asked the court to declare the application complete and order the city to review it. Ultimately, the city denied PLF’s motion, reasoning that the appellate court could resolve the issue since the city planned to appeal its loss.

“Most appeals fail,” Jason Riddick explained. “The city must say the judge was wrong. Meanwhile, the city’s outside attorneys at BBK (Best, Best & Krieger) are billing Malibu the city like crazy … I hope they’ll stop this waste.”

“Does the incoming City Council really want the city’s destiny to be handled by an appellate court? Their decision could impose requirements on the city that we don’t want,” Riddick added. “It’s bad policy to regulate ADUs using the courts.”  

Both Jason and Elizabeth Riddick blame the city’s unspoken policy of “no more housing” and stalling projects forever as a big reason why so many Woolsey Fire victims and families with children move away or don’t come in the first place.

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