In Save Lafayette v. City of Lafayette (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 657, the First Appellate District reversed the trial court’s ruling, finding that a certified voter referendum must be placed on the ballot, and rejecting the city’s argument that doing so would conflict with the Planning and Zoning Law.
In August 2015, the city adopted a resolution amending the general plan to re-designate the subject parcel from administrative professional office (APO) to low-density single-family residential (R-20). After the general plan amendment became effective, the city approved an ordinance codifying the zoning change. The updated zoning would allow for the development of 44 single-family homes proposed by a developer. Subsequently, appellants timely certified a referendum seeking to repeal the ordinance, or alternatively, to have the ordinance submitted to a public vote. The city refused to place it on the ballot. The city maintained that it had discretion to do so, because the referendum was de facto invalid. The city reasoned that if it passed, the referendum would result in an inconsistency between the general plan (R-20 zoning) and the municipal code (which would revert it to APO). Under the Government Code, a zoning ordinance that conflicts with the general plan is invalid. Appellants filed a petition for writ of mandate to compel the city to place the referendum on the ballot. After the trial court ruled for the city, this appeal followed.
In finding for the appellants, the court relied on the Sixth District’s recent decision under similar facts in City of Morgan Hill v. Bushey (2017) 12 Cal.App.5th 34 (review granted Aug. 23, 2017). Key to the Bushey court’s decision was the difference between a referendum and an initiative. An initiative is the power of electorate to propose new laws. In contrast, a referendum grants the electorate the power to approve or reject existing laws. A referendum which vacates an ordinance, like the one at issue here, maintains the status quo. If the voters approved the referendum, then the city must adopt alternative zoning which is consistent with the general plan. If the voters reject the referendum, then no inconsistency is created.
Furthermore, the city does not have discretion to unilaterally keep a properly certified referendum off of the ballot. When presented with the certified referendum, the city’s options were to repeal the zoning ordinance, place the referendum on the ballot and suspend the ordinance, or after placing the referendum on the ballot, file a writ of mandate to have the referendum removed. When a local agency inappropriately refuses to place a referendum on the ballot, this refusal, although improper, may be retroactively validated by the court. Here, the city should have placed the referendum on the ballot, then filed a writ of mandate. Nevertheless, for reasons stated, the court did not validate the city’s decision. The remaining issue of the appellant’s attorneys’ fees was remanded to the trial court.