Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds City’s Scenic View Ordinance Is Considered a Zoning Ordinance under Gov. Code Section 65901 and Therefore Subject to 90-Day Service Deadline for Petition in Section 65009

In a unanimous opinion, the court in Weiss v. City of Del Mar (2019) 39 Cal.App5th 609, upheld the trial court and found that the 90-day service deadline in Government Code section 65009 applied to a planning commission action on a municipal scenic view ordinance. As a result, the court held that a petition for writ of mandate that was served on the City three months after the deadline was time barred.

Background

In August 2016, Petitioner Shirli Weiss submitted an application to the City of Del Mar under its Scenic View Ordinance requesting that Torrey Pacific Corporation, her neighboring property owner, trim its “‘wildly overgrown’” vegetation and trees to restore the ocean view from her property. The Planning Commission held a hearing on the application and, though divided, denied her request. The City Council issued a 2-2 split decision on her appeal in July 2017 which, under the City’s rules, reinstated the Planning Commission’s decision to deny her request.

Weiss filed a petition for writ of mandate against the City and Torrey Pacific in September 2017, but did not serve the City with the petition until December 2017. The respondents jointly moved to dismiss under the 90-day service requirement in Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E). The trial court granted the motion and found it was “‘undisputed’” that this statutory deadline was not met. Weiss appealed. In her appeal, she acknowledged that she served the City more than 90 days after the City Council denied her appeal but contended that section 65009’s deadline did not govern her action.

Time Barred by Section 65009

The Court of Appeal considered the “‘usual and ordinary meanings’” of the plain language in section 65009 within the context of the entire statute. Section 65009, subdivision c, plainly states that a “challenger must file and serve the public entity within 90 days of the challenged decision.” This statute of limitations, the court explained, applies to adoption or amendments of specific plans, general plans, zoning ordinances, development agreements, and regulations attached to specific plans, and all actions “‘done or made prior to any of these decisions.’” (Gov. Code, § 65009, subd. (c)(1).) The service requirement also applies to “‘any decision on the matters listed in Sections 65901 and 65903.’” (Id.) Sections 65901 and 65903 primarily apply to actions related to a zoning ordinance, such as a conditional use permit, variance, or “‘any other powers granted by local ordinance’” to the board of zoning adjustment or zoning administrator. (Id. at § 65901, subd. (a).) The court noted that section 65903 includes zoning board of appeals decisions.

Weiss argued that the City’s Scenic View Ordinance is not a zoning ordinance because it is not within the Municipal Code zoning rules and regulations. The court disagreed, and determined that the Planning Commission was “functionally acting in a zoning board capacity” when it ruled on Weiss’s application. The court explained that the substance of the Scenic View Ordinance required the City to “undertake[] zoning and planning responsibilities,” and therefore it did not matter whether the ordinance was within the City’s Municipal Code. The court cited to Save Lafayette Trees v. City of Lafayette (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 148, where the court held that a tree ordinance was a zoning ordinance. The court noted that any decision made under the Scenic View Ordinance is “quintessentially a public entity decision involving…a land use and zoning determination.” But, the court said, even if it were not a zoning/land use determination, the “‘any other powers’” clause in section 65901 is broad and includes decisions on “a range of issues outside” the categories listed in sections 65901 and 65903.

Weiss also argued that sections 65009 and 65901 only apply to planning or zoning decisions on a project or development, but do not apply to enforcement of an ordinance. Weiss cited section 65009’s stated purpose—to provide “’certainty regarding decisions’” so that owners and governments can “‘proceed with projects.’” The court disagreed with this argument because, particularly where statutory language is “clear and unambiguous,” general statements of statutory purpose “do[] not override the substantive portion” of a statute.  Weiss also argued that the 90-day deadline in section 65009 had only ever been applied to projects or development and never in circumstances like those at issue here. The court agreed with Weiss, but explained that there was no authority stating that section 65009 is triggered only for challenges to projects or developments.

The court also rejected several final arguments from Weiss. First, she argued that the court’s decision to apply the 90-day service rule here would render the statute applicable to all of the Planning Commission’s actions. The court disagreed, pointing back to statutory language that limits 65009 to “zoning and similar land use determinations.” Next, Weiss claimed that the lack of urgency of the current dispute, unlike the expedience necessary for development, precluded applicability of section 65009. The court rejected this argument as an attempt to add language that does not exist in the statute. Additionally, the court explained that tree removal and maintenance issues do need to be resolved promptly. Lastly, Weiss argued that the Scenic View Ordinance specifically mentions Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6, but does not mention section 65009, so that section must not apply. The court explained that Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6 addresses filing deadlines but is silent on service of a petition. Both regulations, the court said, can therefore apply simultaneously.