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Guadalupe apartment complex

The 74-unit La Plaza Villas apartment complex in Guadalupe is pictured on April 15. A jury verdict against the city of Guadalupe over the sale of the complex was reversed Tuesday by the Second District Court of Appeal. 

A California appellate court has reversed a $450,000 judgment against the city of Guadalupe, ruling the city’s urgency ordinance banning the conversion of apartment buildings into boarding houses was lawful.

The original suit was filed in late 2014 following the city's passage of a 45-day ban on the conversion of apartments to boardinghouses.

The ordinance was written after a discussion labor contractor Steve Scaroni had with former Mayor Frances Romero and then-City Attorney David Fleishman about the La Plaza Villa apartments, which he planned to buy and use partly to house H-2A worker.

The federal H-2A program, which allows employers to bring workers from abroad to meet seasonal labor needs, is relied on by many farmers in the region.

On Oct. 14, 2014, the City Council was presented with a permanent ordinance stating apartments can be used as boarding houses with a density of 500 square feet per person. The ordinance allowed higher-density arrangements to be allowed with a conditional use permit.

The day after the permanent ordinance was presented, Scaroni canceled escrow on the sale and Oliver Street Apartments, LLC — which owns the La Plaza Villa apartments — filed a civil rights suit against the city arguing it was unfairly targeted and that the ordinance was intended to discriminate against tenants based on national origin and immigration status.

During the trial, the jury was shown an email exchange between Romero and former City Administrator Andrew Carter in which they discuss prostitution and other “undesired activities” they said could be associated with H-2A workers.

In its decision, the Second District Court of Appeal ruled that the motives of the lawmakers passing the ban were irrelevant and that there would need to be demonstrated discrimination that resulted from the passage of the ordinance to support a civil rights claim on behalf of Olivera Street Apartments.

While the decision noted the impetus for the ordinance was Scaroni’s proposal to use some of the units for H-2A workers, it ruled the ordinance was not discriminatory because it did not target any specific property and that H-2A workers could still be housed in any apartment in the city if the landlord abided by the density requirements.

Contract City Attorney Phil Sinco said the city was pleased but not surprised that the decision was in Guadalupe's favor.

“That is why we filed the appeal in the first place,” he said. “We believe the city’s actions were legal and constitutional and the appellate court decision vindicates that.”

Santa Barbara County officials hope to cut county government’s greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of employees commuting to work alone and increasing the number using greener transportation and working remotely, but some supervisors questioned how much impact the effort would have.

While Guadalupe will not be able to recover any of its attorneys’ fees from the case -- which exceed $250,000 -- the court awarded the city its direct costs for the suit, like court filing fees.

Sinco said he estimated the recoverable costs for the city ranged between $5,000 and $10,000.

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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City Government

Razi Syed covers city government for the Santa Maria Times. He is a graduate of Fresno State University and New York University.