On November 13, 2012, the Third District Court of Appeal in Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton (2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. C067164) affirmed a trial court’s judgment that claims brought under the State Planning and Zoning Law were time-barred because the suit was not commenced within 90 days after the City of Stockton approved the project at issue.
On February 17, 2004, the City filed a Notice of Exemption (NOE) regarding the City’s approval of a shopping center project. The NOE identified the project location and indicated that it fell within a fully entitled master planned development adopted on January 9, 2002. The City determined the site plan, grading plan, landscaping plan, and building elevations and design conformed to standards set forth in the master development plan. The City took the position that these determinations of compliance constituted ministerial actions not subject to CEQA review.
On July 22, 2004, the plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging that the City violated CEQA and planning and zoning laws. The Supreme Court ultimately held that the CEQA claims were untimely under the 35-day limitations period set forth in Public Resources Code, section 21167, subdivision (d). The Supreme Court declined to address the timeliness of the remaining causes of action, as neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeal had ruled on the issue. The remaining claims were remanded, and the trial court granted the City’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding the non-CEQA claims were barred by Government Code, section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E) because they were not brought within 90 days after the City’s approval of the project. The plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, plaintiffs argued a letter of approval issued for the project did not trigger the 90-day statute of limitations because it was not a permit issued after a decision by a legislative body of the City. The appellate court found that plaintiffs’ argument ignored the express language of Government Code, section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(E). This subdivision states that the 90-day limitations period applies to actions or proceedings “[t]o attack, review, set aside, void, or annul any decision on the matters listed in Sections 65901 and 65903…” Section 65901 enumerates the powers of the board of zoning adjustment or zoning administrator and states. In part, “The board of zoning adjustment or the zoning administrator may also exercise any other powers granted by local ordinance.”
The court determined the Stockton City Council, by local ordinance, created the office of Community Development Department Director and vested with this office the authority to review development projects “in compliance with” section 65901. The letter of approval was issued by the City’s Director, who the court found clearly qualified as the City’s “zoning administrator.”
The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that the Director’s letter or approval did not trigger the limitation period because section 65009 is only applicable to the decision of a legislative body. The appellate court found, when considered as a whole, the language of section 65009 supports a finding that the Legislature intended to include decisions by zoning administrators in the 90-day limitations period.
Finally, the plaintiffs argued the application of Government Code section 65009 requires a public procedure and an opportunity for hearing. Plaintiffs asserted this requirement was implied in the section. Real Parties pointed out that this assertion is refuted by the statute’s express language. Section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(e), specifically applies to matters listed in section 65901. Section 65901 distinguishes cases involving the authority to hear and decide applications for conditional uses or other permits from the exercise of other powers granted by local ordinance. Additionally, section 65901 expressly authorizes local jurisdictions to allow the grant of certain variances without a public hearing. The appellate court agreed. After finding the plaintiffs’ planning and zoning claims time-barred, the court dismissed the remaining derivative claims.