Home Demolition, Chutzpa and all that Jazz, at Home and Abroad

          Our newly minted Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has just completed another hegira to the Middle East in quest of the elusive “peace process” that over the past half-century has reliably produced much process but little or no peace. Which is understandable when the folks you want to make peace with insist on their “right” to blast you with what the press likes to call “homemade” rockets, as if they were cooked up by Grandma Yasmin in her kitchen between batches of falafel, rather than constructed by Abdul the Bomb-Maker.  

          The Los Angeles Times reports that on this trip, Madame Secretary expressed disapproval of the Israelis’  demolition of some fourscore Arab homes in Jerusalem, some for an archaeological project which she digs (no pun intended), and others because they were built without permits. Much could be said here on this topic, and much has already been said about the bona fides of it all. In a nutshell, the Arabs contend that they, poor babies, simply have to build illegally because they plumb can’t get any building permits, don’t you see. As it happens, that is not true, but it makes for good, tear-jerking propaganda which is dutifully repeated by the American press that back home wouldn’t even consider printing such crap, much less presenting it in a favorable light.

          In fact, the municipality of Jerusalem has been issuing permits in both Western (Jewish) and Eastern (Arab) parts of town, though obviously not everybody gets a permit – same as here. The Arab population of Jerusalem has been growing at a faster rate than the Jewish population, without the folks on the Arab side having to forgo housing, and having to camp out in the streets a la Calcutta. Some of the largest, most luxurious homes in Jerusalem are Arab-owned. 

          But be all that as it may, it should not come as news to our readers that unpermitted construction of buildings, whether here or there, is, well, illegal. In fact, the Israelis have been demolishing homes built illegally by Jews as well as Arabs (David Rudge, Ten Illegal Jewish Homes Demolished in Galilee, Jerusalem Post, Nov. 23, 2001). 

           So rather than referee the hotly contested dispatches from the Middle East – a clearly unrewarding endeavor – we might perhaps gain some perspective if we inquire into what happens right here at home, when people build stuff without valid permits, in defiant disregard of zoning and land-use laws. Any guesses?  

          Take a look at Golden Gate Water Ski Club v. County of Contra Costa (2008) 165 Cal.App.4th 249. In the court’s words,

The Club purchased Golden Isle in 1966. By 1970, without obtaining any land use or related permits, the Club had built or installed at least 15 residential dwelling units on the island in the form of cabins and/or travel trailers, plus decks, docks and other related structures. On July 1, 1970, the County’s building inspection department notified the Club its use of the island violated the County’s land use requirements and was not permitted. The Club did not cease its use of the island nor did it remove the dwelling units and other structures. To the contrary, still without obtaining any land use or related permits, the Club added to the development, so that by 2003 the development on Golden Isle had grown to 28 residential dwelling units, 28 docks and various outbuildings.”

Bottom line: the club’s claim that forcing it to demolish its unpermitted, illegally built structures was a taking of its property was rejected, and, the club was ordered to tear down its improvements. 

           And in Freduniak v. California Coastal Commission (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1346, the landowners were innocent purchasers of residential property that, in violation of a California Coastal Commission open space easement, had been landscaped to include a three-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. The golf course, visible from the street, had been in place for 18 years and the plaintiffs purchased the property because of it, believing it to be legal. But then the Commission learned of the violation of its open space easement and issued an order requiring removal of the golf course and restoration of the land to its natural state – an expensive proposition. The owners protested but the Court of Appeal refused to apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel, notwithstanding the owners’ reasonable reliance on their belief that at the time of purchase the golf course use was allowed. No laches either, in spite of the failure of the Commission to act for 18 years, and in spite of the substantial expense to the landowners of restoring the land to its natural state. 

           And who can forget Broadway, Laguna etc. Ass’n. v. Board of Permit Appeals, 66 Cal.2d 767 (1967), where a San Francisco developer had to give his 11-story building a “haircut” by reducing its height even though he had acted in reliance on a city-issued variance that the Supreme Court held to be invalid because it purported to authorize an illegal floor-area ratio?

            We could go on — there are other cases like that, both in California and elsewhere in the United States. But we’re sure that by now you get the point, and that point is that the Israelis’ enforcement of their land-use laws, is not some sort of exotic Middle East atrocity as suggested in the Times story, but rather a process of assuring compliance with local land-use regulations that are no different from the ones right here at home. It is a safe bet that if a California builder started to put up homes without a permit and had the chutzpa to try and do so on top of an archaeological site, you could safely bet serious money that he would be enjoined before you could blink an eye, with the Los Angeles Times cheering the government and denouncing the scofflaw on its editorial page.  

         So if Secretary Clinton is of a mind to hector government entities for enforcing their land-use laws that require the issuance of valid permits before construction of improvements may proceed, she need not travel far – she has her work cut out for her right here at home without the need to consume precious energy and hasten global warming by flying to far off places to lecture foreigners on the wickedness of doing what we do routinely and lawfully right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

           That’s not quite all. In a separate story (Richard Boudreaux, Defiant In the Face of Demolition, L.A. Times, 3/7/09, at p. A22) the Times featured an Arab gentleman, one Hashem Jalajel, who bitterly complains that those wicked Israelis won’t let him and his sons build on an archaeological site without a permit. Imagine that! Though Jalajel is depicted by the L.A. Times as a sympathetic character, there is more to this story which turns out to be a towering achievement in breathtaking chutzpa. The 80-year old Jalajel who lives in the Silwan-City of David neighborhood of Jerusalem, is a retired Jordanian  Army officer. Our gray-haired readers may recall how in 1948 the Jordanian Army (then known as the Trans-Jordanian Arab Legion) invaded the newly established State of Israel, conquered Judea and Samaria (rechristened by the press as “the West Bank”), including the Silwan-City of David area. There they expelled all Jews from their homes, destroyed their synagogues, desecrated their cemeteries and turned their homes over to Arabs. If you do a little arithmetic, it becomes quite possible that the 80-year old Jalajel who served in the Jordanian army may have been involved in these events at the time. But now, he complains – oy, how he complains – that even though he and his sons got to build homes in open defiance of municipal permitting requirements, those wicked Israelis won’t let him build additional illegal structures, and want his old structures demolished because they had been build without permits atop an archaeological site slated to become a part of a new public park.

           To get the full extent of these folks’ chutzpa, in the words of the Times: “[Arab] residents said they were summoned to a meeting with city officials last month and told that” – are you ready? – “they would be offered housing elsewhere before bulldozers destroyed their homes.” Do you suppose that Americans who get caught building without permits are also offered substitute housing? If you do, get in touch – we’ll give you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.  


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