In Woody’s Group, Inc. v. City of Newport Beach, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 3, reversed the trial court’s decision denying a writ of administrative mandamus and held that the City Council of Newport Beach violated principles of fairness in overturning a permit application approved by the city’s planning commission.
Woody’s Warf (“Woody’s”) is a long-established restaurant overlooking the harbor in Newport Beach. In 2013, the Newport Beach Planning Commission voted to approve a conditional use permit to allow Woody’s to have a patio cover, remain open until 2 a.m. on weekends, and allow dancing in the restaurant. Four days after the planning commission’s decision, a member of the Newport Beach City Council filed an appeal of the planning commission’s decision because the council member “strongly believe[d]” the conditional use permit was inconsistent with the city’s general plan. Following a “lively” public meeting, in which the council member who filed the appeal presented a lengthy presentation on why the planning commission’s decision should be overturned, the city council voted to reverse the planning commission’s decision.
Woody’s thereafter filed with the Orange County Superior Court a petition for a writ of administrative mandate with the superior court, seeking to set aside the city council’s decision. The trial court denied the writ. The Court of Appeal reversed.
The Court of Appeal first held that Woody’s had established an “‘unacceptable probability of actual bias”’ on the part of the council member that filed the appeal. According to the court, the council member’s notice of appeal “showed he was strongly opposed to the planning commission’s decision on Woody’s application” – that is, he took a position against the project. Furthermore, the court explained, the council member’s speech to the council had been written out beforehand, “wholly belying his own self-serving comment at the hearing that “‘I have no bias in this situation.’” Therefore, the court held, the council member should not have been part of the body hearing the appeal.
Second, the court held that the appeal did not meet the procedural requirements of the city’s municipal code, and therefore should not have been brought. The city argued that the city had a “policy and practice” of allowing council members to appeal the planning commission’s decision. This argument was not well taken by the court. As the court explained: “The City violated the rules laid down in the city’s own municipal code, then purported to exempt itself from that code by invoking some previously undocumented custom of ignoring those rules when it comes to council members themselves. Needless to say, changing the rules in the middle of the game does not accord with fundamentally fair process.”