Orange County Supervisors Tuesday passed a temporary moratorium on senior housing for a property in North Tustin, a preemptive move to cover the county’s legal liability after a recent board vote to reverse a 2011 zoning amendment.

Supervisors voted unanimously to institute a 45-day moratorium, aimed at preventing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County from creating means for a lawsuit over a controversial senior living facility project that has been stalled in court for several years.

The Diocese’s proposal for a senior living facility has long been opposed by a local homeowners’ group, the Foothills Community Association, and Chairman Todd Spitzer, who argue the project violates a 1983 planning document that only allows for single-family homes, a school or church on the property.

In 2011, a different Board of Supervisors, then led by chairman and prominent Catholic Bill Campbell, voted for a zoning amendment to allow the project to move forward.

Since that vote, homeowners and other opponents have taken the project to court, arguing the county’s actions constituted illegal spot zoning.

The diocese lost in local court. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled last year in favor of the diocese — saying that while the project was indeed spot zoning, it provides a crucial service to society. Homeowners have since appealed the court ruling.

At the urging of Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the Third district where the project is located, supervisors voted Jan. 13 to reverse the 2011 board vote.

It was only later that county staff raised the question of what to do as they wait for the reversal of the zoning amendment to be finalized.

Currently, the diocese has not applied for any building permits on the property.

But as the zoning amendment travels through the county bureaucracy — it has to go to the county Planning Commission and again before supervisors — the diocese could, in the meantime, apply for a building permit.

That could place the county on the hook for what the diocese has spent developing the property and potential lost profits since the Board’s 2011 vote, according to county counsel Nicholas Chrisos.

“Their rights are very limited right now,” Chrisos said, adding that seeking a permit “would give them the ability to sue us and probably win.”

Before ultimately voting for the moratorium, Supervisor Michelle Steel questioned whether the Board was going “too far” when their reversal still has to be considered by the Planning Commission. She also questioned why staff didn’t discuss similar issues of legal exposure before they voted Jan. 13.

Susan Hori, an attorney representing the diocese, objected to the moratorium, noting that the diocese was not notified about Tuesday’s action.

“This is particularly egregious given that the Diocese just recently met with Supervisor Spitzer and was never informed of this pending action,” Hori wrote in an email to the county.

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