In Snowball West Investments L.P. v. City of Los Angeles (2023) 96 Cal.App.5th 1054, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the City of Los Angeles did not violate the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) or the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) when it denied a rezone required for a proposed 215-home development project.
Petitioner, Snowball West Investments, L.P., first submitted the project application in 2007. The project underwent various changes and proceeded through the approval process for more than a decade. In June 2019, the City Planning Commission approved much of the project, conditioned on a future zoning change from A1 and RA (“Agricultural” and “Suburban” zones, respectively) to RD5 and R1 (“Restricted Density Multiple Dwelling” and “One-family” zones, respectively).The Planning Commission recommended that the City Council approve the rezone and determined that the project would be consistent with the General Plan land use designations of “Low Medium I” and “Low Residential.”
In December 2019, the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) considered the zoning change request. PLUM received a number of public comments, many of which opposed the project. Additionally, City Council member Monica Rodriguez submitted a letter to PLUM opposing the zoning change. The Rodriguez Letter asserted that the requested change was not consistent with good zoning practice for several reasons. First, it explained that the existing zoning permitted only 19 units on the project site and argued that allowing 215 units would be incompatible with the surrounding area. Second, it raised fire safety concerns due to the site’s topography, location, and limited access. Finally, it pointed out that the City’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment did not identify the project site as a suitable area for allocating new housing.
PLUM adopted the Rodriguez Letter as its findings regarding the proposed rezone and recommended that the City Council deny the rezone. Shortly after, the City Council adopted PLUM’s recommendation and unanimously denied the zoning change.
In January 2020, Snowball requested that the City proceed with the project approvals, arguing that under the HAA, the project did not require a rezone. The City denied Snowball’s request and Snowball filed a petition for writ of mandate, arguing that the City abused its discretion and violated both the HAA and the LAMC when it denied the rezone. The trial court denied the petition. Snowball appealed.
Court of Appeal’s Decision
The court affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that the project was not exempt from a rezone under the HAA and rejecting Snowball’s argument that the City failed to make required findings under the HAA and the LAMC.
Under the HAA, “a proposed housing development project is not inconsistent with the applicable zoning standards and criteria, and shall not require a rezoning, if the housing development project is consistent with the objective general plan standards and criteria but the zoning for the project site is inconsistent with the general plan.” Snowball argued that a rezone was not required for the project because the zoning for the project site was not consistent with the general plan. Specifically, Snowball pointed out that the existing zoning permitted only 19 homes on the project site, while the general plan allowed up to 244 homes.
The court rejected Snowball’s argument, however, explaining that while the general plan expressly allowed higher-density zones in the applicable land use designation, it also allowed “those zones which are more restrictive, as referenced in [the LAMC].” Because the existing zoning was one of those “more restrictive” zones, the court concluded that there was no conflict between the existing zoning and the general plan, despite their differences in allowable densities.
Additionally, the court rejected the contention that a limitation on density below the maximum density allowed under the general plan necessarily results in an inconsistency between the zoning and the general plan. Citing the HAA, the court explained that the zoning is consistent so long as the “various land uses authorized by the ordinance are compatible with the objectives, policies, general land uses, and programs specified in the plan.”
Finally, the court rejected the argument that the City’s general plan was designed to allowed more restrictive zones in higher-density areas “in order to skirt the requirements of the HAA.” While acknowledging that the HAA “should be ‘interpreted and implemented in a manner to afford the fullest possible weight to the interest of, and the approval and provision of, housing,’” the court nevertheless concluded that it was within the City’s legislative authority to adopt a general plan that allows multiple zones of variable restrictiveness within a given land use designation.
The court rejected Snowball’s argument that the City failed to make required findings under the HAA and LAMC when it denied the zone change.
With respect to the HAA, the court explained that findings are only required when a local agency disapproves a housing project that “complies with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria.” The court concluded that, because the project was not consistent with the existing zoning, no findings were required.
With respect to the LAMC, the court noted that the City had adopted the Rodriguez letter as findings when it denied the rezone. Pointing to the large number of public comments on the project, the court concluded that those findings were supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the court concluded that the City did not fail to make required findings under the LAMC when it denied the rezone.