Archives: October 2021

First District Holds City of San Mateo’s Denial of an Application for a Multifamily Building Violated California’s Housing Accountability Act

In a landmark decision, California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund v. City of San Mateo (2021) 68 Cal.App.5th 820, the First District Court of Appeal held that the City of San Mateo violated the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) in denying a proposed multi-family housing project based on the city’s concerns that the project’s height and scale conflicted with the city’s design standards. The court held that because the city’s design standards are subjective, rather than objective, those standards could not serve as a basis to deny the application under the HAA. The court also upheld the HAA against challenges that it infringed upon the city’s and neighboring property owners’ rights under the California Constitution.

Background

Nearly 40 years ago, the Legislature passed the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), also known as the “Anti-NIMBY” law with the goal of “meaningfully and effectively curbing the capability of local governments to deny, reduce the density for, or render infeasible housing development projects.” (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (a)(2)(K).) The HAA provides that local governments may only deny an application to build housing if the proposed housing project does not comply with “objective” general plan, zoning, and design review standards. (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (j)(i).) In 2017, the Legislature added weight to this requirement by specifying that a housing development is deemed to comply with a municipality’s objective standards if “substantial evidence … would allow a reasonable person to conclude” that the project is consistent with those standards. (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (f)(4).)

In 2015, a developer applied to the City of San Mateo to build a ten-unit, multifamily residential building on a site surrounded by single-family residences. The site is designated for high-density multifamily residential in the city’s general plan and zoning code. The city’s planning staff concluded that the project was consistent with the city’s general plan and zoning code standards for multifamily dwellings and with the city’s design guidelines. Staff recommended the planning commission approve the project.

The application came before the planning commission in August, 2017. At the hearing, several city residents objected to the project, opining that it was too large for the surrounding single-family residential neighborhood. After continuing the hearing, the planning commission voted to deny the application, agreeing with neighboring residents that the building was out of scale with neighboring single-family homes. The commission directed staff to prepare findings that the project is inconsistent with the city’s design guidelines because it is not in scale and not in harmony with the character of the neighborhood and that the building is too tall and bulky for the site. More specifically, the commission observed that there is a two-story differential between the project and adjacent single-family dwellings, which is inconsistent with the requirement in the design guidelines that there be a “transition or step in height” between the buildings.

At its next meeting, the planning commission adopted the proposed findings in full and voted to deny the project. The plaintiffs, a group of housing advocates, appealed to the city council. The city council upheld the planning commission’s decision. The plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit seeking a writ of administrative mandamus on the ground that the city’s denial of the project violated the HAA.

The trial court denied the petition. The trial court held the city’s design guidelines were objective for the purposes of the HAA and that the city properly denied the application because the project was inconsistent with the guidelines. The court also denied the petition on the ground that the HAA conflicted with the California Constitution. In particular, the court held that to the extent the HAA conflicted with otherwise enforceable provisions of the city’s municipal code regarding housing development, the HAA is unenforceable as an intrusion into the city’s municipal affairs under the “home rule” doctrine of the California Constitution. (Cal. Const. Art. IX, § 5(a).) In addition, the trial court found that the HAA violates the prohibition on delegation of municipal affairs to private parties (Cal. Const. Art. XI, § 11(a)). The plaintiffs appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Application of the HAA to the City of San Mateo’s Design Standards

The appellate court first considered whether the city properly denied the application for the multifamily housing project under the HAA. The court explained that the key question in its application of the HAA is whether the city’s design guidelines qualify as “applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards, which would allow the city to disapprove the project under Government Code section 65589.5, subdivision (j)(1), if they are not satisfied. The court concluded that the portions of the design guidelines addressing height are not objective for the purposes of the HAA.

The court explained that the question of whether the design standards are “objective” within the meaning of the HAA is a question of law to which the court owes the city no deference. The court determined that the language in the city’s design guidelines requires subjective judgment, and is therefore not objective. For example, the design guidelines provide that if building height varies by more than one story, the city may require a “transition or a step in height.” The fact that the guidelines allow a choice in how to address the height differential shows that the standard is not entirely objective. Moreover, the terms “transition” and “step in height” are open to interpretation. For instance, some might view the placement of large trees in between buildings, or the addition of trellises, as providing a transition or a step in height. Indeed, under the city planning staff’s original interpretation of the design guidelines, the question was treated as one of design choice which could be resolved in a variety of ways, depending on which form the designer viewed as most “compatible” with adjacent buildings. Furthermore, even assuming the guidelines require a setback in height, the guidelines do not state how large the setback must be, leaving that determination open to subjective determination. Based on these and similar considerations, the court held that the city’s design standards are subjective, rather than objective, so those standards cannot be a basis to deny a housing project under the HAA.

California Constitutional Challenges

The court next considered whether the HAA violates the California Constitution—specifically, whether subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA violates the “home rule” doctrine for charter cities, and the prohibition on delegation of municipal functions, and whether the HAA denies neighboring property owners of procedural due process rights. The court concluded that the HAA does not violated the California Constitution on any of these grounds.

The “Home Rule”

The California Constitution’s “home rule” provides that charter cities may govern themselves without legislative intrusion into municipal affairs. (See Cal. Const., Art. XI, § 5.) The courts apply a four-part test to determine whether the Legislature may exert control over a charter city’s action, despite its right to home rule: (1) whether the ordinance at issues regulates a “municipal affair”; (2) whether the case presents an actual conflict between local and state law; (3) whether the state law addresses a matter of statewide concern; and (4) whether the state law is “reasonably related” to resolving the concern at issue and is “narrowly tailored” to avoid unnecessary interference with local governance. Under this test, if the court determines that the subject of the state statute is of statewide concern and that the statute is reasonably related to its resolution and not unduly broad, then the conflicting charter measure is deemed not to be a “municipal affair” and the Legislature may pass legislation addressing it.

Applying these factors to the HAA and the city’s design review ordinance, the court held that the first two prongs were met because planning and zoning laws are a traditional municipal affair and, to the extent the city’s ordinances allow the city to reject applications for housing developments based on subjective standards, the ordinances conflict with the HAA. As to the third prong, the parties agreed that the provision of housing is a matter of statewide concern. The city argued, however, that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA does not itself address a matter of statewide concern because local governments’ denial of housing projects is not the sole cause of the housing crisis. Other factors, such as high construction costs, a shortage of construction labor, and delays caused by the need to comply with CEQA, also contribute to the shortage. The court rejected this argument, explaining that the fact that local government’s denials of housing permits are not the only cause of the state’s housing crisis is immaterial. The question is whether the problem the Legislature is trying to solve is a statewide problem, not whether the solution is the only possible solution.

As to the fourth and final prong – whether the statute is reasonably related to the resolution of the identified statewide concern and is narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessary interference with local government – the court found that the Legislature’s limiting the ability of local governments to deny new development based on subjective criteria is reasonably related to providing additional housing. Furthermore, the statute is narrowly tailored in that it leaves local governments free to establish and enforce policies and development standards, as long as those standards are objective, and do not otherwise interfere with the jurisdiction’s ability to meet its share of regional housing needs. Additionally, the HAA does not bar local governments from imposing conditions on projects to meet subjective standards; the HAA only prohibits local governments from reducing a project’s density or denying the project altogether based on subjective standards. The HAA also allows local governments to deny a proposed housing project if the project would have an unavoidable adverse impact on health and safety. (See Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (j)(1)(A) and (B).) Accordingly, the statute is not only reasonably related to a statewide concern, but also narrowly tailored to avoid undue interference with local control over zoning and design decisions. Therefore, section (f)(4) of the HAA does not violate California Constitution’s “home rule.”

Delegation of Municipal Functions

The court next considered whether subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA violates the California Constitution’s prohibition on “delegate[ing] a private person or body power to … perform municipal functions.” (Cal. Const. Art. XI, § 11, subd. (a).) The court held that it does not. Although subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA lowers the burden to show a project is consistent with objective standards, the statute does not cede municipal authority to private persons. For example, local agencies maintain the authority and discretion to determine whether the record contains substantial evidence that a reasonable person would find the project is consistent with applicable objective standards, and to impose conditions of approval on the project, provided that they do not reduce the project’s density where applicable objectives are met.

The city argued that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA would allow anyone, even the project proponent, to place in the record evidence that a project is consistent with objective standards and thereby force a local agency to approve the project. The court rejected this argument, however, because the “substantial evidence” standard provides a sufficient degree of scrutiny such that not just any self-serving evidence will support the conclusion that a project is consistent with applicable objective standards. Furthermore, subdivision (f)(4) requires that the evidence to allow a reasonable person to consider the project in conformity with the objective standards. Therefore, the statute does not require a local agency to approve a project based on the unsupported opinion of a single person, or upon evidence that a reasonable person would not find credible.

Due Process

Lastly, the city argued that subdivision (f)(4) of the HAA violates the rights of neighboring landowners by depriving them of the opportunity to be heard before a housing project is approved. More specifically, the city argued, subdivision (f)(4) renders local government review a useless exercise because if anyone submits evidence that the project is consistent with applicable objective standards, the project is deemed consistent and must be approved.

The court rejected this argument. Even assuming that due process protections apply to a municipality’s determination that a project is consistent with objective standards under subdivision (f)(4), there is no due process violation. The substantial evidence standard requires evidence that is of “ponderable legal significance” and is reasonable, credible, and of solid value. Nothing in the HAA prevents neighbors from presenting evidence to the agency that the substantial evidence standard is not met. Furthermore, neighbors can also present evidence that the agency should impose conditions on the project to minimize adverse effects or even deny the project if it would have an unavoidable “specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety.” (Gov. Code, § 65589.5, subd. (j).) Therefore, although subdivision (f)(4) may affect which arguments carry the day, it does not deprive opposing neighbors with a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

Implications

The Court of Appeal in this case strictly interpreted what is meant my “objective” in the meaning of the HAA. The case makes clear that if there is room for personal judgment in deciding whether a proposed project complies with a given design standard, the standard is “subjective” and cannot be a basis to deny the housing project. The case serves as a warning to local agencies to heed the HAA’s limits on the ability to deny a proposed housing project. In the words of the court: “As the Legislature has steadily strengthened the statute’s requirements, it has made increasingly clear that those mandates are to be taken seriously. …The HAA is today strong medicine precisely because the Legislature has diagnosed a sick patient.”

Fourth District Court of Appeal upholds determination that one group of utilities undergrounding projects is exempt from CEQA because of petitioner’s failure to exhaust, but remands for further consideration of GHG impacts from second group of utilities undergrounding projects

In a procedurally complicated holding, in McCann v. City of San Diego (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 51,the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling on the City of San Diego’s determination that one set of utilities undergrounding districts is exempt from CEQA, but remanded for further analysis of another set of utilities undergrounding districts to determine whether the project’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are consistent with the City’s Climate Action Plan (CAP).

Background

The City of San Diego adopted a Utilities Undergrounding Program Master Plan in 2017, which sets out a process by which the City is converting overhead utility wires to an underground system. Undergrounding includes digging tunnels or trenches, installing underground conduit, filling in the soil, and pulling cable through the conduit. In addition, the City installs new above-ground transformers, three-foot cube-shaped cable boxes, and pedestals. The Master Plan and the City’s Municipal Code divide the larger effort to convert the entire above-ground utility system into smaller “districts,” each of which the City considers and approves separately.

Margaret McCann, a property owner, challenged the City’s approval of two sets of districts. The first set, City staff determined, was exempt from CEQA pursuant to Guidelines section 15302, subdivision (d). For the second set, the City adopted a mitigated negative declaration (MND).

The exempt districts

City staff determined that the first set of districts is exempt from CEQA. The City posted a Notice of Right to Appeal Environmental Determination in its City Development Services Department Office and on its website, and emailed the notice to City Councilmembers and local community planning groups. The notice stated that the exemption determination was appealable to the City Council within ten days. No one appealed. The City Council subsequently mailed notice of a public hearing regarding the districts to affected property owners, including McCann. McCann emailed the City and indicated that she had not seen the Notice of Right to Appeal, and that she believed the environmental review was inadequate. Her attorney also spoke at the Council hearing. The City Council subsequently approved the projects and the City filed a Notice of Exemption.

The MND districts

Separately, the City published a draft MND for another set of undergrounding districts, because some of them included sites with cultural significance. The MND also considered potential aesthetic and GHG effects from the projects. McCann and her attorney submitted written comments disputing the adequacy of the MND, and McCann’s attorney spoke at the public hearing. The City Council adopted the MND and approved the undergrounding districts.

Trial court decision

McCann filed a petition challenging both the exempt districts and the MND districts. The trial court denied the petition in its entirety. With respect to the exempt projects, the trial court found that McCann failed to exhaust administrative remedies, and in the alternative, denied her claims outright. Regarding the MND projects, the trial court found that McCann failed to demonstrate that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the projects may have a significant effect on the environment.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court, with one exception. First, with respect to the exempt projects, the court explained that CEQA does not prescribe a specific appeal process following a determination that a project is exempt. But, the court said, CEQA does require that if a nonelected official or decisionmaking body determines that a project is exempt, the agency must allow for an appeal of that determination to the decisionmaking body. Here, the City provided an administrative appeal process, but McCann did not file a timely appeal pursuant to the City’s procedures. McCann argued that City staff’s exemption determination did not comply with due process principles, but the court disagreed because the determination was not a land use decision and did not deprive McCann of any significant property interest. As a result, the court concluded, McCann failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, barring her claims with respect to the exempt projects.

Second, with respect to the MND projects, the Court of Appeal rejected all but one of McCann’s arguments. McCann argued that the City improperly segmented the projects; the court disagreed because each utility underground district is independently functional and does not rely on other districts to operate, and no set of districts is the “first step” toward any other projects. McCann argued that the project description was inadequate because it did not identify the precise locations of above-ground transformer boxes; the court disagreed because regardless of the precise location of each transformer, the environmental impacts of the project are the same. McCann argued that the MND projects will have significant aesthetic effects on the environment; the court disagreed because McCann failed to meet her burden to identify substantial evidence in the record that the project might have significant impacts. Most of McCann’s arguments, the court said, revolved around her neighborhood, which falls under the exempt projects, not the MND projects. McCann also cited to testimony of a person who commented on the project, but the court concluded that stray comments or expressions of concern related to aesthetic impacts are not enough to constitute substantial evidence.

The Court of Appeal remanded to the trial court on one narrow issue–the City’s determination that GHG impacts are not significant. Interestingly, the court explained that it was not holding that McCann proved that substantial evidence supported a fair argument that the project might have significant GHG impacts, which is usually the standard of review applied by the courts when considering an MND. Instead, the court said that because the City relied on an inapplicable checklist to conclude that the project was consistent with the City’s CAP, the City’s conclusions were not supported by substantial evidence.

To determine whether the project is consistent with the CAP, the City looked to its “Climate Action Plan Consistency Checklist.” The checklist directs staff to first consider whether a project is consistent with the City’s land use and zoning regulations. If yes, staff must then move to step two. But the checklist explains that step two does not apply to projects that, like this one, do not require a certificate of occupancy. Because step two does not apply, the City concluded that the project was consistent with the CAP. The court found, though, that the City could not rely on a checklist which expressly states that it does not apply to projects like this one to make a consistency determination. Thus, the court concluded, the City never considered whether the MND projects are consistent with the CAP. The court clarified that the use of a checklist to determine consistency might still be appropriate; the City could amend the checklist to include a step for assessing infrastructure projects, or it could create a separate checklist entirely. Without such a checklist though, the City was required to consider whether the projects comply with each individual action identified in the CAP if it wished to rely on streamlined review of GHG impacts.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment on this limited issue, with directions to the trial court to enter a new judgment granting the petition in part, and to issue a peremptory writ of mandate directing the City to set aside its adoption of the MND and approval of the project.

COURT HOLDS DENSITY BONUS LAW PROHIBITS CITIES AND COUNTIES FROM REQUIRING PROOF THAT PROJECTS WILL BE “ECONOMICALLY” INFEASIBLE WITHOUT REQUESTED CONCESSIONS AND WAIVERS

The density bonus law (Gov. Code, § 65915) requires cities and counties to allow increased building density, and development incentives and waivers of permit requirements, in exchange for the applicant’s agreement to dedicate a specified number of dwelling units to low or very-low income households. In Schreiber v. City of Los Angeles (2021) 69 Cal.App.5th 549, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Los Angeles’ municipal code is preempted by the state density bonus law to the extent that the city’s code requires an applicant to prove that the concessions it requests under the density bonus law are needed to make the affordable-housing component of the project financially feasible.

The case involves a mixed-use development in the City of Los Angeles, with retail uses on the ground floor and residential units above. Absent concessions and waivers, the city’s zoning code would limit the site’s development to three stories, a height of 45 feet, and a maximum of 40 units. Under the density bonus law, however, the applicant proposed to develop a seven-story building, with 54 units, including five very-low income units and five moderate income units.

Prior to the city planning commission’s first hearing on the project, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 2501 (AB 2501), which amended the density bonus law to prohibit local governments from conditioning their review or approval of an application under the density bonus law “on the preparation of an additional report or study that is not otherwise required by law.” (Gov. Code, § 65915, subd. (a)(2).) AB 2501 clarified, however, that local agencies are not prohibited from “requiring an applicant to provide reasonable documentation to establish eligibility for a requested density bonus, incentives, or concessions.” (Ibid.) It also clarified that the term “study” does not include “reasonable documentation to establish eligibility for the concession or incentive or to demonstrate that the incentive or concession meets the definitions” set forth in the density bonus law. (Gov. Code, § 65915, subd. (k).)

Based on AB 2501, the city’s planning department advised that financial pro formas and third-party reviews can no longer be required. Although the applicant had provided financial information regarding the project, in response to city staff’s interpretation of AB 2501, the applicant stated that he would not be providing a pro forma for the project.

Following a hearing, the city planning commission approved the project, including the requested density bonus. The planning commission also approved two “off menu” incentives (increased floor area and maximum height) and two waivers (transitional height and rear yard set back requirements).

The plaintiffs, residents of a nearby single-family home, filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the city misinterpreted the density bonus law. In particular, the plaintiffs argued that the city erred in granting the off-menu incentives because the applicant had not submitted financial information showing that the incentives were needed to make the project economically feasible—information that, the plaintiffs observed, was required under the city’s municipal code. The trial court denied the petition and the court of appeal affirmed.

The appellate court explained that under AB 2501’s amendments to the density bonus law, a local government cannot condition its approval of incentives on the preparation of a report that is not otherwise required by law. The city’s municipal code, however, provided that a request for an off-menu incentive must include a pro forma or other documentation showing that the incentive is needed to make the affordable-housing component of the project economically feasible. The court held that the city may not require information that an incentive is necessary to make the project economically feasible because that information is not needed to show that the project is eligible for the incentive. Rather, the “economically feasible” language in the city’s municipal code was based on a prior version of the statute, which required applicants to show that an incentive was necessary to render the affordable units economically feasible. That requirement, however, had been removed from the statute in 2008. Because the city code conflicted with state density bonus law, the court held that the city code is preempted to the extent that it requires an applicant to demonstrate that a requested incentive is needed to make the project economically feasible.

The case provides helpful guidance regarding the documentation that local agencies may require in processing a request for incentives and waivers under the density bonus law. The case clarifies that an agency may not require an applicant to prove that the requested incentives and waivers are necessary to make the affordable-housing component of a project economically feasible. The court’s reasoning in the case is consistent with the requirement that the density bonus law be “interpreted liberally in favor of producing the maximum number of total housing units.” (Gov. Code, § 65915, subd. (r).)