A vacant lot at 361 Ultimo Ave. in Long Beach is at the center of a legal battle between its owner and city officials, who are charging an annual fee to owners of vacant lots. Thursday, April 28, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

A fee that Long Beach charges to owners of vacant lots is facing a court challenge.

Frederic Sparrevohn, who owns a vacant lot in the city, filed a lawsuit with the Los Angeles Superior Court last month seeking to invalidate the $780 annual fee. Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association staff attorney Laura Dougherty is representing Sparrevohn in the suit.

Sparrevohn’s argument rests on Proposition 218, also known as the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, which added two new articles to the California Constitution that limited local governments’ ability to raise certain taxes without voter approval, particularly those pertaining to property ownership.

Long Beach, for its part, has not yet filed a response to Sparrevohn’s April 8 complaint in court. City officials declined to comment on the litigation.

But according to the city’s municipal code, the fee is “a mechanism to protect neighborhoods and commercial areas from becoming blighted due to the lack of adequate maintenance and security of vacant lots and to establish minimum standards of accountability on the owners or other responsible parties of vacant lots in order to protect the health, welfare and safety of the community.”

Long Beach approved the fee in 2017 as part of the city’s Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone program, which is meant to promote agricultural activities in vacant lots by providing tax breaks, including relief from the aforementioned fee.

The program serves a two-fold purpose for the city: to encourage the cleanliness of vacant lots and promote needed agricultural activity in the city.

The lawsuit

Sparrevohn, in his complaint, argued that it’s unconstitutional for Long Beach to require the fee of property owners without voter approval.

His lawsuit comes after an unsuccessful March 21 hearing with the city’s Board of Examiners, Appeals, and Condemnation.

In that appeal, Sparrevohn explained that he purchased the lot over 20 years ago with the hopes of building a home on the land, but said he was blindsided by fees that made construction too expensive for him.

“The city put so many roadblocks in my way that I gave up,” the appeal said. “They said that to get the building permit and pay for other requirements would be over $13,000.”

Sparrevohn also outlined the costs he already pays to maintain the lot, including hiring a mowing service every two weeks and paying “close to $50,000 in property taxes over the years.”

“I gave up on building for myself and decided it would be nice if I could save it for my kids so that someday they might be able to build there and not have to leave California for a more affordable place to live,” the appeal said.

The board, which does not weigh in on the constitutionality of city law, unanimously found that Sparrevohn’s property meets the definition of a vacant lot and so he must pay the fee.

Proposition 218

Sparrevohn is not alone in his questioning of this fee, as many landowners have reached out to the HJTA with similar complaints, according to Dougherty.

She said that she has received more and more emails from concerned landowners recently as more cities are imposing vacant lot fees.

“We’ve been receiving inquiries from our members for several years about these fees,” Dougherty said in a phone interview. “We frequently receive something like Mr. Sparrevohn sent us: a notice of the fee and the simple question, ‘Is this legal?’”

And there’s a reason the association is considered an expert. The foundation for Sparrevohn’s challenge—Proposition 218—was sponsored by the HJTA when it was passed in Nov. 1996.

Under the law, new taxes and fees that are charged “as an incident of property ownership” require a ballot measure to pass with two-thirds of the vote.

“Without having gone through that process,” Dougherty said, “the fees are just plain invalid.”

Under Proposition 218, local governments are also not allowed to increase these fees unless they are shown to directly correlate to the costs the city incurs.

In Sparrevohn’s case, the complaint argues the $780 fee is not directly correlated to any costs that Long Beach pays.

Long Beach, city documents show, maintains the fee is used to cover the “monitoring costs” of the vacant lots. But Sparrevohn’s lawsuit argues that this management is limited to simple drive-by monitoring by police, which does not justify the $780 annual fee, according to the complaint.

“The Fee is a charge for purely observational police service,” the complaint said, “which no other property owners pay because observational police service is a traditional general public benefit.”

Beyond Long Beach

This case is not the first time the HJTA has challenged laws to try and enforce Proposition 218.

Statewide, cities have implemented new tax increases in recent years for a variety of purposes—from supporting homeless initiatives to funding child care and educational programs—and the HJTA has challenged many of them on the basis that they violate the proposition.

Outcomes in those cases have, at times, come down to the details.

In San Francisco, for example, the HJTA failed in its efforts to overturn two separate 2018 tax increases. The measures were approved with a simple majority of votes, rather than the two-thirds that Proposition 218 requires. But a judge ruled that because the hikes were proposed through a citizen-led ballot measure, rather than from lawmakers, the supermajority was not required.

The HJTA, though, won a 2002 case that challenged an extra fee imposed on customers in the city of Roseville north of Sacramento for water, sewer, and garbage services. That fee was found to be in violation because it was not proportionate to the cost to provide the service—an argument shared in Sparrevohn’s suit in Long Beach.

Looking forward

Despite the mixed results from previous complaints seeking to enforce Proposition 218, Dougherty said she is optimistic that Sparrevohn’s claim will be successful.

“Well, I’m very optimistic about this case. This is definitely a property-related fee,” Dougherty said. “It could be well-intentioned, but it’s a pretty blatant violation of Prop. 218.”

However, the path to that potential success is uncertain. After a judicial conference on Aug. 8, in which lawyers from both sides will meet with the judge and each other to determine how to proceed, Dougherty said the case’s future depends on the city’s response, and the outlook is still unclear so soon after filing.

“It’s hard to say how long it will take,” Dougherty said. “I think it could easily take a couple of years, maybe longer, depending on how congested the Courts of Appeals is.”

Whether or not the challenge is successful, Dougherty said the HJTA hopes that taking this step helps send the message that fees and increases that are beneficial to the community can be successful—but only with the approval of those affected, as required under the law.

“Just make sure you’re doing it the right way and get the consent of the property owners,” Dougherty said.

“There could be a lot of great ideas for property-related services,” she added. “Just make sure you do your polling and that it’s good enough to get approval of the property owners.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.