Development rights are not constitutionally protected property interests where significant discretion is involved

In Contasti v. City of Solana Beach (Oct. 22, 2013) 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15760 (Case No. 09CV1371), the United States District Court for the Southern District of California held that landowners had no Fourteenth Amendment property right in the use of their land where a city had broad discretion to decide whether to grant a development permit. The landowners could not reasonably rely on the benefit of development where it was clearly within the city’s power to deny that benefit, and the city had acted within its discretion.

Background. Plaintiffs were the owners of two adjacent lots in the City of Solana Beach. They submitted applications to build one home on each lot. The city approved the first application but denied the second, which proposed a 4,387 square foot house. Plaintiffs sued over the denial, claiming that the city had violated their constitutional substantive due process rights by denying them a protected property interest—their right to develop.

District court decision.  The court rejected the claim, finding no protected property interest under Fourteenth Amendment.  The Supreme Court in Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth explained that to have a property interest in a benefit, one must have a legitimate claim of entitlement to that benefit under state law. Where government officials are given a large amount of discretion in conferring that benefit, the court reasoned there can be no reasonable expectation of entitlement.

The plaintiffs in Contasti argued that they were entitled to the requested development permit, and thus had a constitutionally protected property interest. However, the Solana Beach Municipal Code gave significant discretion to the city council to approve or disapprove development projects. The code required the city council to review each development proposal to determine whether it was compatible with existing and potential development in the project area. Given that plaintiffs’ proposed residence for the second lot was 2,700 square feet larger than the average existing residences, and 387 square feet larger than the maximum size of future residences in the area, the city had found that the development plan for plaintiffs’ second lot was not in harmony with the surrounding area as required by the municipal code.

The court held that the city council complied with all requirements of the local municipal code and had rendered a decision based on those criteria. Thus, plaintiffs could not claim a property entitlement in their development permit given the city’s discretionary review.