Like the main characters in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” or Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” David and Mel Bright find themselves in a confusing, absurd situation where answers are not forthcoming.
The Brights own Rio Groceries on Soledad Canyon Road, between Agua Dulce and Acton. They have run afoul of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning’s zoning division. Specifically, the county has them in violation for selling alcohol without a conditional use permit (CUP). The Brights maintain the county delayed the need for it and then failed to explain what has to be done to secure it.
“I don’t get it,” said David, 63. “I just don’t get it.”
Late Wednesday, County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office reached out and explained: The Brights need only complete and submit the application they never finished and pay $1,100 and attend a hearing in which the department would decide to grant the CUP or not.
“All the county needs to see is some sign that he is showing progress toward compliance,” said Edel Vizcarra, Barger’s deputy in charge of planning and public works.
Back in 2010, the Brights applied to renew their permit. They submitted their application and $10,000 as instructed. But they were told to wait because Santa Clarita was finalizing its new General Plan, commonly known as “One Valley, One Vision,” a joint effort between the county and the city of Santa Clarita that would create a single plan within the county and city’s jurisdictions for growth and preservation of natural resources. That included various areas being zoned certain ways. The plan was adopted in 2011.
According to Bright, the county “graciously” re-zoned the store into its own commercial zone (it originally was a resort-recreation zone because it served the various nearby campsites going back to 1965) in return for waiting for “One Valley, One Vision” to be completed.
The Brights waited for the county to contact them, which took three years. Once they were contacted, they were told that their permit had expired and they were operating without one. “Well, you guys told me to wait,” Bright said he told them. “It’s nothing but a bureaucratic paper mess.”
Bright said the county’s zoning officer told him to resubmit a floor plan to indicate the amount of commercial space in which alcohol would be sold. He said the total was less than 900 square feet.
Some time later, a second zoning officer came to the store, verified the floor space and told the Brights they had to attend a hearing, fill out a land-use application and pay $500. Bright asked what the land-use application was and was told, “It’s not my department.”
He also told the officer he couldn’t attend any hearing because he had undergone eye surgery. He said the zoning officer “got pissed off” and started an investigation into the store’s lack of CUP, which had expired in 2011.
“She threatened to take my alcohol license away,” Bright said. The license to sell alcohol, granted by the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, had not been cited in the entire 19 years the Brights have been licensed to sell alcohol, he added. However, Vizcarra said, the county also must sign off on a business in its jurisdiction selling alcohol.
Then the Brights got a notice of violation, from Regional Planner Thomas Dearborn, warning them that continuing to sell alcohol without the proper CUP could lead to jail time, and that they owed a non-compliance fee of $798 and $2,793 for “collection of further administrative and collection fees.”
The Brights have not paid those fees. They were told if they did not comply with the zoning ordinance by Oct. 20, they would face more fines. They did nothing, and the county has not come after them.
But their frustration levels have grown.
“All they have to do is approve it (original application) and we’re done,” Bright said. “I don’t know why they keep dragging this out.” Bright suspects the county wants him to start over, but he already paid $10,000.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “Why do you keep trying to start over from scratch? You have my money. Why don’t you sign me off? What’s the land-use stuff? Why are you trying to sneak it in?”
Tony Bell, Barger’s spokesman, told the Gazette the goal is to get the Brights into compliance. He also was interested in what happened to the $10,000 the Brights paid the county in 2010. “We still have the record for that,” Mel Bright, said, and Bell said late Wednesday that he found the payment.
For now, the situation remains unresolved, but Vizcarra has spelled out a roadmap. The $1,100 is for the county sending out notice of a hearing to nearby businesses, he said, and to hold the actual hearing.
“It’s just frustrating, the business with L.A. County,” Mel Bright said. “We’re already tired. We’ve had the store for 19 years. Never had a problem, never had a violation. Nothing.”