//We’ve Won a Substantial Victory-But the Work Remains Half Done

We’ve Won a Substantial Victory-But the Work Remains Half Done

By Jaguar Bennett  | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

The New Year brought a substantial victory to the Tower District. On Jan. 19, the California Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Sequoia Brewing Company’s appeal of Tower Theatre Properties’ motion to expunge the lis pendens on the Tower Theatre.

Translated from legal gobbledygook, this means that Adventure Church can’t buy the Tower Theatre while Sequoia’s lawsuit against Laurence Abbate, the owner of the Tower Theatre, is still grinding its way through the courts.

This is a big deal — I am told the first court date for Sequoia’s lawsuit will be in February 2023. So, for the coming year, Adventure Church will not be able to take ownership of the building. For the moment, the Tower Theatre is safe.

But this is, at best, a half-victory that leaves many issues unresolved. This ruling only postpones whether Adventure Church will buy the Tower Theatre — it doesn’t resolve it. Even though there’s been a full year of litigation over the theater, all the legal action so far has been about whether the sale can go through while Sequoia’s lawsuit is pending.

It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for Tower District advocates. Fresno County Superior Court Judge Rosemary McGuire has ruled twice that the sale can proceed despite Sequoia’s legal claims. Sequoia has appealed both of McGuire’s decisions, and both times the state court of appeal has overruled McGuire.

All this drama has decided nothing about whether Adventure Church will ultimately buy the Tower Theatre, a question that has been punted to 2023. Nonetheless, it is a good thing that the sale has been forestalled for another year since it postpones any danger that the Tower Theatre will be permanently rezoned as a church.

When Tower District residents first learned that Abbate intended to sell the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church back in January 2021, it was widely assumed that the sale could not be stopped and that the fight would be to prevent rezoning the theater. Rezoning the theater as a church, which would endanger the liquor licenses and conditional use permits of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, would be a serious blow to the Tower District economy.

That danger is now way off in the future. As long as the church doesn’t own the theater, there’s no way the building’s zoning will change, so the bars are safe for now, which is definitely a big win.

But while the Tower District can breathe easier, the situation is still bad. The sale is blocked, but Laurence Abbate continues to rent the Tower Theatre to Adventure Church every Sunday and the first Wednesday of every month. So instead of a church trying to force a rezone on the neighborhood, we have a church willing to regularly break zoning laws — and a city government that is strangely reluctant to enforce zoning.

This nonstop zoning violation creates a strange gray area where it’s unclear how the laws apply. Is a bar too close to a church if the building is only a church five days a month? Would the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control consider a challenge to a liquor license on this basis? If the Tower Theatre is permitted to regularly break zoning laws, why should any business in Fresno be expected to obey the laws? If I were cited for a zoning violation right now, the city’s constant indulgence of the Tower Theatre’s law-breaking would be Exhibit A of my defense.

It’s also problematic that Abbate and Flores seem determined to turn the Tower Theatre into a center of right-wing culture. From Abbate and Flores warmly greeting Proud Boys and accepting their help, to posting Larry Elder election signs, to hosting lectures by anti-vax quack doctors, the Abbate Tower Theatre is bringing right-wing violence and intolerance to an inclusive queer-affirming neighborhood.

It will be interesting to see if Abbate and Adventure Church will hold out at the Tower Theatre during the long year between now and the trial of Sequoia’s lawsuit. This is a point when sane people might cut their losses. It is a very real possibility that Adventure Church will never own the Tower Theatre. Is it worthwhile for the church to fight to the bitter end for the opportunity to operate in a neighborhood they have permanently alienated? At what point does Abbate decide he can just as easily get a paycheck from the many other potential buyers who have made him better offers.

As of this writing, it is too early to tell. But there’s an interesting hint of how this may play out – the Fresno City Council agenda of Jan. 27 listed two closed-door sessions with Laurence Abbate and the lawyers for Sequoia Brewing Company. It is high time the city intervenes to defend the Tower District, and it is high time for Abbate to settle with Sequoia. Let’s hope the threat to the Tower District will end soon, without another year of conflict.