Tag: transit oriented development

In First Opinion Addressing a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment, the Third District Upholds the City of Sacramento’s Approval of an Infill Project

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) ___Cal.App.5th___, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento’s reliance on a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA), a relatively new method for conducting streamlined CEQA review for certain projects that help the state meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. (See Pub. Resources Code, § 21155.2, subd. (b).) The decision is the first published opinion addressing the propriety of an SCEA. The court held that the transit priority project at issue was consistent with the region’s sustainable communities strategy and therefore the City’s reliance on the SCEA complied with CEQA.

The court also upheld the City’s reliance on a unique provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve projects that are inconsistent with the City height and density limits if the projects offer significant community benefits.

Background

The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) was created to integrate transportation and land use planning to reduce GHG emissions. SB 375 directed the California Air Resources Board to develop regional targets for automobiles and light trucks to reduce emissions. In turn, federally designated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must now include a “sustainable communities strategy” (SCS) in their regional transportation plans/ metropolitan transportation plan (MTP). (Gov. Code, § 65080, subd. (b)(2)(B).) MTP/SCSs direct the location and intensity of future land use developments on a regional scale to reduce vehicle emissions. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is the MPO for the Sacramento area. SACOG adopted an MTP/SCS for the region in 2012 and certified an EIR for the MTP/SCS at that time.

Under SB 375, the mandated reductions may be achieved through a variety of methods, including “smart growth planning.” The Legislature determined that one type of development that can help reduce vehicular GHG emissions is a “transit priority project.” This type of project contains at least 50% residential use, has a minimum density of 20 units per acre, and is located within one-half mile of a major transit stop.

To boost development of transit priority projects, SB 375 allows for streamlined CEQA review through an SCEA if the project: (1) is consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area’ in the strategy; and (2) incorporates all feasible mitigation measures, performance standards, and criteria set forth in the prior applicable environmental impact reports’ and which were adopted as findings. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21155, subd. (a), 21155.2, subds. (a), (b).)

The “Yamanee” project at issue in Sacramentans is a proposed 15-story multi-use building made up of one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, residential condominiums on 10 floors, and one floor of residential amenities. The building is proposed to be located near public transit in Sacramento’s growing “Midtown” area, adjacent to the City’s downtown. The project is located in the MTP/SCS’s central city subarea of a “Center and Corridor Community.” Under the MTP/SCS, Center and Corridor Communities are typically higher density and more mixed than surrounding land uses. SAGOG organized the MTP/SCS in such a way that policies for reducing GHG emissions were embedded in the MTP/SCS’s growth forecast assumptions. Thus, projects that are consistent with the MTP/SCS’s growth forecasts are automatically consistent with the MTP/SCS’s emission-reduction policies.

The City determined that the Yamanee project qualified as a transit priority project and that the project was consistent with the general land use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies in the MTP/SCS. Therefore, the City used an SCEA to review the project under CEQA. The SCEA explained that, as a transit priority project, the Yamanee project would increase housing options near high quality transit and reduce vehicle miles traveled. It also explained that the project is consistent with the MTP/SCS’s forecast of low to high-density residential and mixed uses in the center subarea of the Center and Corridor Community.

The City Council upheld the City planning and design commission’s approval of the project and rejected the petitioner’s appeal of that decision. The petitioner sought a writ of mandate in the superior court, claiming that the City’s approval of the project violated CEQA and the planning and zoning law. The superior court denied the petition and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

CEQA

The Court of Appeal rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on SACOG’s MTP/SCS to justify using an SCEA. The petitioner argued that because the MTP/SCS lacked specific density and building intensity standards, the City could not rely on it as a basis for an SCEA. Further, claimed the petitioner, the MTP/SCS undermines the City’s general plan because it treats the City’s center as “higher density,” whereas the general plan sets forth a more nuanced approach under which building intensities and densities increase the closer a development gets to the downtown. These arguments, concluded the court, were premised on a misunderstanding of the MTP/SCS’s role. An MTP/SCS does not regulate land use. The purpose of an MTP/SCS is to establish a regional development pattern, not site-specific zoning. SB 375 authorized the City to review the project in an SCEA if the project was consistent with the regional strategy. Because it was, the city was allowed to rely on an SCEA. Although, as the petitioner contended, reliance on an SCEA could mean that certain projects receive less environmental review than traditionally required under CEQA, the court advised that the petitioner should take this concern to the Legislature, not the courts.

The court also rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on previous EIRs for the general plan and MTP/SCS to avoid analyzing the project’s cumulative impacts. In particular, the petitioner claimed that streamlined review was inappropriate in this case because no prior environmental analysis had considered the cumulative impacts of high-rise development in Sacramento’s midtown. The court explained that CEQA required the City to prepare an initial study (IS) before drafting the SCEA. The City’s IS for the project concluded that cumulative effects had, in fact, been adequately addressed and mitigated, and therefore did not need to be analyzed further in the SCEA. Additionally, the project included all applicable mitigation measures recommended in the prior EIRs. The petitioner failed to show that the City’s analysis was not factually supported. Accordingly, the City did not err by relying on prior cumulative impact analyses.

Planning and Zoning Law

The development proposed by the project is denser and more intense than what would ordinarily be allowed under the City’s general plan and zoning code. The City approved the project, however, under a provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve more intensive development when a project’s “significant community benefits” outweigh strict adherence to the density and intensity requirements. The City determined that the project would have several significant community benefits, including helping the City to achieve its goal of building 10,000 new residential units in the central city by 2025, and reducing dependency on personal vehicles. These, and other benefits, outweighed strict adherence to the City’s density and intensity limits.

The petitioner argued that the City’s decision to allow the Project to exceed the general plan and zoning code’s intensity and density standards constituted unlawful “spot zoning.” The court explained that spot zoning occurs where a small parcel is restricted and given fewer rights than the surrounding property (e.g., when a lot is restricted to residential uses even though it is surrounded by exclusively commercial uses). This case, explained the court, is not a spot-zoning case in that the property was not given lesser development rights than its neighboring parcels. The petitioner argued that the neighboring parcels had, in fact, been given lesser development rights through the City’s approval of the project, but there was no evidence in the record that any neighboring owner sought and was denied permission to develop at a greater intensity or that the City would arbitrarily refuse to consider an application for such development.

The petitioner also argued that the phrase “significant community benefit” as used in the City’s general plan was unconstitutionally vague. The court disagreed, explaining that zoning standards in California are required to be made “‘in accord with the general health, safety, and welfare standard,’” and that the phrase “significant community benefit” was no less vague than the phrase “general welfare.” Additionally, held the court, the phrase “significant community benefit” provides sufficient direction to implement the policy in accordance with the general plan.

The court also held that the City had articulated a rational basis for the policy allowing the City to waive the density and intensity standards for projects that provide significant community benefits, which is all that the Constitution required.

Conclusion

In this case, the City of Sacramento successfully employed CEQA’s streamlined provisions for transit priority projects to expedite and simplify its environmental review of an infill project that will help the City meet its aggressive new housing goal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The City’s general plan allowed the City to approve the project because the project would provide significant public benefits, even though the project is inconsistent with the general plan and zoning code’s density and intensity standards. As California continues to combat the dual threats of a housing shortage and climate change, cities and counties are likely to increasingly rely on streamlined approaches to the approval process for mixed-use projects near public transit.

Second District Upholds City’s Interpretation of Its Charter Allowing General Plan Amendment for Transit Oriented Development Project

In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles et al.(2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1079, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s conclusion that the City of Los Angeles did not misinterpret its City Charter when it amended its general plan to change the land use designation of a nearly five-acre parcel for a transit-oriented development project on the west side of the city.

In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Dana Martin, Jr., Philena Properties, L.P. and Philena Property Management, LLC (Philena) applied to develop a mixed-use, transit oriented development project on a former car dealership site of approximately five acres. The site is on the corner of Bundy Drive and West Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles, less than 500 feet from a new light rail station. As part of its application, Philena requested that the City change the site’s general plan land use designation from light industrial to general commercial, and several other entitlements. The City prepared an EIR for the project and in September 2016, approved the project and the general plan amendment. Appellant, Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment sued, challenging the amendment under City Charter section 555, subdivisions (a) and (b).

Los Angeles City Charter section 555 governs general plan amendments in the city. Relevant here, subdivision (a) allows the plan to be amended “by geographic areas, provided that the … area involved has significant social, economic or physical identity.” Subdivision (b) of that section states, in pertinent part, that “[t]he Council, the City Planning Commission or the Director of Planning may propose amendments to the General Plan.” Westsiders argued that both of these provisions prevented the City from approving the amendment in this case. Westsiders alleged that the general plan could not be amended for a single project or parcel because a single parcel did not qualify as a “geographic area” with “significant social, economic or physical identity” as required by section 555, subdivision (a). Petitioner also argued that, by requesting the general plan amendment, Philena had effectively “initiated” the amendment in violation of section 555, subdivision (b), which restricts the authority to start that process to the council, planning commission or planning director. The trial court denied the petition and found that the city did not exceed its authority under its charter in approving the amendment in this case. Westsiders appealed.

The court of appeal found that, because the challenge was to the city’s amendment of the general plan, Government Code section 65301.5 required that the city’s action be reviewed under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085, governing traditional mandamus. In doing so, the court rejected Westsiders’ argument that, because the general plan amendment was for a single project and parcel, review should be under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, governing administrative mandamus. In discussing the appropriate standard of review, the court recognized that charter cities are presumed to have power over municipal affairs, and that any limitation or restriction on that power in the charter must be clear and explicit. The court also stated that, while construing the charter was a legal issue subject to de novo review, the city’s interpretation of its own charter is entitled to great weight unless it is clearly erroneous, and must be upheld if it has a reasonable basis.

In interpreting the charter, the court found that the plain meaning of the terms “geographic area” and “significant social, economic or physical identity” did not contain any clear and explicit limitation on the size or number of parcels involved in amending the general plan by geographic area. The court rejected Westsiders’ request for judicial notice, which contained several documents that Westsiders claimed were legislative history showing that the voters had intended to include such a limitation. The court also rejected Westsiders’ argument that, in considering whether a geographic area has “significant social, economic or physical identity” the city may not consider the proposed project and future uses of the site. The court found that the city’s determination that the site had significant economic and physical identity because it was one of the largest underutilized sites with close proximity to transit in West Los Angeles, and that the project would be the first major transit oriented development met the requirements of Charter section 555, subdivision (a). The court also pointed out that not every lot in the city would necessarily meet the requirements of the charter and qualify for a general plan amendment.

Interpreting Charter section 555, subdivision (b), the court rejected Westsiders’ argument that, by filling out a land use application requesting that the city amend the general plan, Philena had improperly “initiated” the amendment in violation of the charter. Similar to its analysis of subdivision (a), the court found that section 555, subdivision (b) did not contain a clear and explicit limitation on who could request that the city amend the charter. The court also stated that city followed the procedures required by the charter because, after Philena made its request, it was the planning director who formally initiated the amendment process.

Next, the court found that, because amending the general plan is a legislative act, the city was not required to make explicit findings to support its decision. The court rejected Westsiders’ argument that the city was required to make findings that “bridge the analytical gap between the raw evidence and ultimate decision” in this case (quoting Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 506, 515). The court found that this requirement did not apply to legislative acts, such as the amendment of the general plan. The court also rejected Westsiders’ argument that the city’s use of the word “unique” in discussing the site’s identity (as opposed to “significant”) made its “findings” inadequate. The court found that the city’s analysis showed that the site had significant economic and physical characteristics and met the requirements of section 555, subdivision (a).

Lastly, the court rejected Westsiders’ argument that the city impermissibly “spot-zoned” the project through the general plan amendment. The court found that Westsiders had failed to raise this argument in the trial court and was thus barred from raising it on appeal. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the petition for writ of mandate.