In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles et al. (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1079, the Second District Court of Appeal held 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 single parcel for a transit-oriented development project.
In 2015, Real Parties in Interest, Dana Martin, Jr., Philena Properties, L.P. and Philena Property Management, LLC (applicant) applied to develop a mixed-use, transit oriented development project on a five-acre site that was formerly a car dealership. The site was on a corner of a major intersection in West Los Angeles, less than 500 feet from a new light rail station. As part of its application, the applicant requested that the City change the site’s general plan land use designation from light industrial to general commercial, among other entitlements. The City prepared an EIR for the project and approved the project and the general plan amendment. A community group, Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment, sued, challenging the legality of the process followed by the City for amendment under the City Charter.
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). Westsiders also argued that, by requesting the general plan amendment, the applicant 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 individual 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, the applicant 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 the applicant 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” used in the charter provision) 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.
RMM Partner Sabrina V. Teller and Associate Nathan O. George represented the respondent City of Los Angeles.