The city of Santa Clarita’s nearly 5-year-old effort to take down solar panels scattered across a Canyon Country hillside is now awaiting a response to the city’s appeal of the case, which is due in June from the owners of the manufactured-homes park.
While L.A. Superior Court Judge Stephen Pfahler sided with the city in its effort to force removal of the “equivalent of over 6,000 solar panels” that cover 120,000 square feet of previously open space adjacent to Canyon View Estates, the city filed a 56-page appeal over the cost of the removal, which the city was ordered to pay.
The city’s appeal essentially claims the owner of the park had knowledge the solar array he wanted to construct was a violation of the park’s conditional use permit, and the facts of the case don’t support that city staff “ought to have known” about those conditions, which the park owner didn’t mention when looking to construct the project.
Hence, according to the city, Santa Clarita shouldn’t be financially punished for abating what it considers a nuisance based on its regulations and residents’ complaints, nor should an estoppel, which represents the grounds for which the park is being compensated, be applied.
In Pfahler’s January 2022 ruling, the parties responsible for the panels in Canyon View Estates Mobile Home Park at 20001 Canyon View Drive were ordered to remove or demolish them, if that’s what the city wants.
However, if the city wants to do that, per the ruling, the city was required to let the park know within 45 days and, more significantly: either pay the defendants $4.5 million to have the defendants remove them, in which case the city gets to keep the panels; or the city could pay $4 million, and Canyon View gets to keep its panels.
The respondent’s brief is due in June, according to records for the 2nd Appellate District Court available online.
The city declined to comment on the grounds of its appeal, citing that it’s a part of active litigation, and attorneys for Canyon View did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
However, in the appellate brief filed in March 2022, attorneys for the city laid out their arguments for why they believe Pfahler lacked precedent in using a legal term known as government estoppel.
In layman’s terms, estoppel refers to “an equitable doctrine, a bar that prevents one from asserting a claim or right that contradicts what one has said or done before, or what has been legally established as true,” according to Cornell Law School.
The city is arguing the county trial court ruled in error in awarding the defendants, Canyon View, the approximately $4.5 million the facility spent on the purchase and installation of the panels, because Pfahler incorrectly determined a government estoppel exists.
The trial court found the estoppel, or precedent that allowed the panels, included the city’s 2016 statements to the park’s owner — while park officials still were looking into the installation of the panels — which conveyed to the park owner that the city lacked jurisdiction over the construction of the project, because such authority lied with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development through the Mobilehome Parks Act, or MPA.
However, the city notes in its appeal that the 1984 conditional use permit, or CUP, granted by L.A. County for Canyon View, which predates the city’s existence by three years, was never mentioned to city officials during the discussion of building permits for the array. The CUP required 50% of the hillside to remain open space. Canyon View also made an argument, which the trial court rejected, that claimed that residents’ lawns counted as open space.
That means, according to the city’s argument, that the defendants could claim they had proper approval “only if they could impute (emphasis theirs) knowledge to the city,” according to the appeal. “But the trial court never found that the city possessed imputed knowledge of the CUP — and there was no basis for such a finding.”
So far, the city has already spent $1.1 million in its fight to have the panels removed as of Thursday, according to an email from Kevin Strauss, communications specialist.
The city also notes in its appeal that the park has benefitted from a $1.2 million federal tax rebate as a result of the solar panels, as well as a net profit of about $250,000 by the panels’ third year of operation.
The city still wants the panels down, based on the appeal — it just doesn’t want to have to pay for the privilege.
“This court should … enter a judgment that does not require the city to pay any penalty to enforce the permanent injunction,” according to the city’s filing. “In the alternative, if this court concludes that only the trial court’s measure of compensation was erroneous, the court should remand with instructions to the trial court to enter an amended judgment that reduces the amount of penalty to account for the financial benefits defendants have derived from operating the solar arrays at Canyon View.”