In Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation et al. v. Superior Court of Orange County (2016) 2 Cal.5th 141, the City of Orange approved a proposed 39-unit residential development on a former golf course. The project was controversial because the private development would replace open space. Nevertheless, the city approved the project’s proposed general plan amendment to allow residential development on the property. In response, petitioners Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation et al. challenged the city’s amendment to the general plan by referendum. The city then changed its position, claiming that there was no need to amend its general plan for the development project in the first place, since a resolution from 1973 allowed residential development on the property. The city thus concluded that whatever the outcome of the referendum, it would have no effect on the development. In November 2012, a majority of voters rejected the project’s general plan amendment. The Supreme Court’s decision honored the voters’ intent, holding that the city abused its discretion in determining that the project was consistent with the city’s general plan.
The case has a complicated—and, it is hoped, unique—factual background. Orange Park Acres, the property at issue in the case, is located in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. In 1973, the city established an Orange Park Acres development committee to resolve disputes about what to do with the land. After several weeks of outreach, the development committee adopted the Orange Park Acres Specific Plan (OPA Plan). The OPA Plan designated the property at issue for use as a golf course, or should that prove economically infeasible, for recreation and open space.
The city planning commission considered the OPA Plan, and after hearing, in November 1973, adopted a resolution recommending the city council to adopt the OPA Plan, but with a significant amendment: the OPA Plan should designate the property for open space and low density (1 acre) instead of open space. The City Council adopted the OPA Plan on December 26, 1973. Curiously, however, neither the city council resolution approving the OPA Plan, nor the OPA Plan itself, described the planning commission’s proposed amendments to the OPA Plan.
In 1977, the city council passed a resolution that would allow low-density development in Oak Park Acres, and to update the land use map to reflect this change. Again, for reasons that are unclear, the city never made these changes. Neither the text of the OPA Plan, nor its attached land use policy map, were updated to designate the property low-density residential.
The city again revised its general plan in 1989. The intent of the 1989 General Plan was to establish “definitive land use and development policy to guide the City into the next century.” The 1989 land use policy map, which the general plan described as the “most important” feature of the land use element, designated the property for open space/golf. The 1989 General Plan also incorporated the OPA Plan under the heading “Area Plans”— but the version of the OPA Plan that was publically available designated the property as open space.
In view of these facts, in 2007, when the developer for the residential project at issue submitted its development application, the developer requested a general plan amendment to change the property’s land use designation from “open space” to “estate residential.” In 2009, while the city was still processing the application, the developer’s counsel discovered the 1973 resolution that recommended the OPA Plan designate the property for open space and low-density residential. The developer’s counsel promptly conveyed the resolution to the city attorney, prompting the city to conduct a comprehensive review of its planning documents concerning the property. Based on this investigation, the city attorney concluded: (1) 1973 OPA Plan is part of the general plan; and (2) the OPA Plan designates the property as “Other Open Space and Low Density (1 acre).”
Around that same time, the city was again in the process of revising its general plan. A final version of the general plan was approved in March 2010. The 2010 General Plan identifies the project site as “open space.” But it also references the OPA Plan and states that development must be consistent with the OPA Plan.
On June 14, 2011, the city council certified a final EIR for the project. The final EIR explained that the OPA Plan was part of the general plan, and that at the time the OPA Plan was adopted, the city council intended the project site to be designated for one-acre residential development. Due to a clerical oversight, however, this designation did not make it into the plan itself. The final EIR further reported that the project’s proposed general plan amendment would remove any uncertainty pertaining to the project site’s land use designation and honor the city council’s original intent for the project site.
The city council approved the project, including the project’s proposed general plan amendment. A few days later, the petitioners circulated a referendum petition challenging the city’s general plan amendment. The city council thereafter approved the project’s proposed zone change, concluding that the zone change was consistent with the 2010 General Plan.
Around that same time, the developer’s counsel wrote the city attorney with an “elegant solution” to the referendum: to take the position that the 1973 Planning Commission resolution designated the property for low-density residential, and the clerical error of not recording the designation did not alter the site’s true designation. The city attorney adopted this position, and prepared a report explaining that the project would remain consistent with the general plan regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
In November 2012, the voters rejected the project’s general plan amendment.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
The trial court and the Court of Appeal sided with the city and the developer, holding that the project was consistent with the 2010 General Plan because the 1973 designations applied to the project site, and the clerical failing to record the designations did not alter this fact. The Supreme Court reversed.
In the opinion, authored by Justice Liu, the court first explained that a local agency’s determination of whether a project is consistent with a general plan is a quasi-adjudicative, rather than a quasi-legislative determination. As such, the question before the court was whether the city abused its discretion in finding the project consistent with the 2010 General Plan. The court explained that reviewing courts “must defer to a procedurally proper consistency finding unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.” (Italics added.) The court determined that under the facts before it, no reasonable person could conclude the residential project was consistent with the city’s 2010 General Plan.
In reaching this conclusion, the court was especially swayed by the fact that members of the public, seeking to review the General Plan, would have no way of knowing that General Plan designated the project site for low-density residential. To the contrary, based on the publically available 2010 General Plan, members of the public would have thought the OPA Plan was consistent with the general plan map designating the property as open space. Indeed, even the city and the developer believed this to be the case—as evidence by the fact that the project proposed a general plan amendment.
The developer argued that the city should not be bound by a clerical error because doing so, in the developer’s view, would give greater power to staff than to the city council. But, explained the court, a city official cannot exercise a “power” that is by definition inadvertently exercised. Nor was there any evidence that staff purposely failed to carry out the intent of the 1973 resolution. And, in any event, the city council could have made it clear that the site was designated for low-density residential when it adopted the 2010 General Plan, but it did not.
Adding to the unreasonableness of the city’s conclusion that the project was consistent with the 2010 general plan was the fact that voters had rejected the project’s general amendment via referendum. As eloquently stated by Justice Liu:
The open space designation for the Property in the 2010 General Plan did not inform the public that the Property would be subject to residential development. The City’s proposed general plan amendment puts its citizenry on notice that such development would be possible. In response, Orange Citizens successfully conducted a referendum campaign against the amendment. If “legislative bodies cannot nullify [the referendum] power by voting to enact a law identical to a recently rejected referendum measure,” then the City cannot now do the same by means of an unreasonable “administrative correction” to its general plan undertaken “’with the intent to evade the effect of the referendum petition.’” [Citation.]
Although there is no specific format a general plan must take, a general plan must still comprise an integrated, internally consistent, and compatible statement of policies for future development. In this case, anyone reviewing the city’s general plan would have concluded that the project site was designated to remain in open space. While one can easily imagine the glee the developer and its attorney must have felt upon discovering the 1973 resolution designating the property low-density residential, in the view of the court, it was too little, too late. If the site was designated low-density residential, the planning documents should have reflected this. After voters expressed their intent not to have the site designated low-density residential, the city should have respected that intent, rather than attempting to re-write 35 years of planning documents. The opinion seems to affirm, however, that in general, the courts must defer to a city or county’s conclusion that a project is consistent with the general plan. Only where—as in this case—no reasonable person could conclude that the project is consistent with the general plan should the courts interfere with the city or county’s determination of general plan consistency.