A City of Hanford zoning ordinance that permitted furniture sales only in large department stores has been thrown out as unconstitutional by the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

The ordinance, which was intended to keep furniture stores downtown, prohibited all but the largest stores in an outlying planned commercial (PC) zoning district from selling furniture. But the ordinance contained an exception allowing stores of at least 50,000 square feet to devote up to 2,500 square feet to furniture displays. The exception created two classes of retailers, and “the disparate treatment of these two retailers does not bear a rational relationship to the goal of preserving downtown Hanford,” the court ruled.

The controversy started in 2002, when Adrian and Tracy Hernandez sought a certificate of occupancy for Country Hutch Home Furnishings and Mattress Gallery, a 4,000-square-foot mattress store that would also carry bedroom furniture and accessories. The store was to be located in the PC zone. A city official told the business owners they could not sell furniture at this location, and in early 2003 the city approved a certificate of occupancy for Country Hutch that identified the merchandize the store could sell. Furniture was not on the list.

The Hernandezes opened the store and started selling furniture anyway. The city cited them for violating the zoning ordinance. The store owners responded with a request that they be allowed to sell the same type of furniture already available at Wal-Mart, Gottschalks and The Home Depot in the same zoning district.

The city conducted a series of study sessions before the City Council in July 2003 adopted a new ordinance prohibiting the sale of furniture in the PC zone except by department stores of more than 50,000 square feet. The city reasoned that the ordinance would protect the vitality of downtown — where the city wants to see furniture stores — while still keeping the PC zone available for department stores.

The Hernandezes sued, arguing that the ordinance violated the constitution’s equal protection clause. Kings County Superior Court Judge Peter Schultz found that there was a rational basis for treating the two classes of stores differently, and he upheld the ordinance. The store owners appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Fifth District overturned the lower court in a very straightforward decision.

The appellate court found that the prohibition on furniture sales in the PC zone “appears to reasonably relate to a legitimate governmental purpose, i.e., keeping large furniture stores downtown in order to preserve the economic viability of that commercial district.” The problem, wrote Justice Herbert Levy, was the exception for large stores.

“Country Hutch sells mattresses and home furnishings, both permitted in the PC zone. Country Hutch also wanted to include a limited furniture department. The department stores are in the same position. They want to devote a portion of their floor space to furniture. Under these circumstances, the difference in total floor space is largely irrelevant. Thus, these retailers are in similar situations. Accordingly, in order for the ordinance to comply with the equal protection principles, this classification based on size must bear a rational relationship to the legislative goal, i.e., the preservation of downtown Hanford.

“Here, with the blanket 2,500-square-foot restriction on furniture in the PC zone, the small retailer poses the same potential threat, if any, to the downtown merchants as the larger store. Thus, limiting the furniture sales exception to stores with more than 50,000 square feet is arbitrary. A rational relationship between the size classification and the goal of protecting downtown simply does not exist.”

The court also rejected the city’s argument that the ordinance was legitimate because it made the PC zone attractive to large retailers. Small retailers are not a detriment to the PC zone, the court ruled.

The Case:
Hernandez v. City of Hanford, No. F047536, 06 C.D.O.S. 2643, 2006 DJDAR 3718. Filed March 28, 2006

The Lawyers:
For Hernandez: Russell K. Ryan, Motschiedler, Michaelides & Wishon, (559) 439-4000.
For the city: Michael J. Noland, Kahn, Soares & Conway, (559) 584-3337.