In Holden v. City of San Diego (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 404, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the City of San Diego’s reliance on CEQA’s in-fill exemption for a seven unit residential project on environmentally sensitive land in the city’s North Park community. The court rejected plaintiff’s claim that the city erred in relying on the in-fill exemption because the project was less dense than the standards established in the city’s general plan. The court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s reliance on the exemption because the general plan, together with an applicable community plan, allowed the city to deviate from the density standards for projects in environmentally sensitive areas.
In 2014, the developer applied to the city to demolish two houses and to construct seven new residential condos on a 0.517-acre site located on a canyon hillside. City staff initially informed the developer that the project did not comply with the minimum density standards for the site under the general plan and an applicable community plan. Specifically, staff determined Policy LU-C.4 of the general plan and the housing element of the community plan required a minimum of 16 dwelling units on the site. Later, however, city staff concluded that a reduced density of seven units was appropriate because the site is considered environmentally sensitive.
The city determined that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA under the infill exemption set forth in CEQA Guidelines section 15332. To qualify for this exemption, a project must be consistent with the general plan’s designations and policies. On April 18, 2017, at the planning commission’s recommendation, the city council unanimously voted to approve the project.
The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city’s determination that the project is exempt from CEQA and the city’s approval of the project. The trial court denied the petition. The petitioner appealed.
The Court of Appeal’s Opinion
On appeal, petitioner contended that the city erred in finding the project is exempt from CEQA under the infill exemption because the project provides less residential density than is required by the general plan. In so arguing, petitioner relied primarily on a policy of the general plan to “‘[e]nsure efficient use of remaining land available for residential development … by requiring that new development meet the density minimums of appliable plan designations.’” The general plan recommended that residential areas designated “Medium High”—including the project site—provide multi-family housing with a density range of 30- to 44-dwelling units per acre. Because the project did not meet this standard, petitioner argued the project was inconsistent with the general plan, and, therefore, the city abused its discretion in relying on CEQA’s in-fill exemption.
The court rejected the petitioner’s argument as too rigid of an interpretation of the general plan. The court explained that the city’s determination that the project is consistent with the general plan is entitled to great weight because the city is in the best position to interpret it. The general plan consistency requirement does not require rigid conformity to the general plan. A project is consistent with the general plan if it will further the plan’s objectives and policies, and not obstruct their attainment.
Although the general plan’s density standards would ordinarily require 16 or more units on the site, the city council adopted extensive findings explaining why the project was consistent with the general plan, despite its lower density. In support of its findings, the city council cited a note in the community plan, which states that the residential density recommendations “‘may be subject to modification.’” Further, the community plan provided that modifications could be made to the recommended densities. The general plan provides that the community plans are integral components of the general plan; thus, the court held, the city appropriately considered these statements in the community plan as part of the general plan. The city council found that the project, at seven units, struck a reasonable balance of meeting the city’s housing goals, while also respecting the environmentally sensitive canyons. The city’s code limits development on steep hillsides, and the project proposed design was consistent with the city’s hillside development standards. Further, the project would provide infill residential housing, consistent with the city’s housing policies. As stated by the city council, the project’s “‘creation of seven new dwellings, where there existed two units, would assist the housing needs of the North Park area community.’”
The Court of Appeal concluded that the city’s extensive general plan consistency findings demonstrated that the city considered the general plan, the community plan, and the city’s steep hillside development regulations in approving the project and balanced the competing interest of those plans and regulations. Based on its review of the record, the court concluded that the city acted reasonably and did not abuse its discretion by balancing those competing policies and regulations to determine the project is consistent with the general plan. Accordingly, the court held that substantial evidence supported the city’s reliance on the in-fill exemption.