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CA Supreme Court Reverses City’s Approval of Residential Housing for Failure to Comply with General Plan

The California Supreme Court reversed the City of Orange’s approval of a 39-unit residential development project for failure to comply with the City’s General Plan in its recent decision Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation v. Superior Court (Milan Rei IV), filed December 15, 2016. The primary question before the Court was whether a 1973 resolution, which was never recorded by the City, took precedent over the City’s 2010 General Plan land use designations. The Court held that the relevant land use designation was not the designation from the 1973 resolution, but rather the designation in the 2010 General Plan that was available for public access. The decision reiterates the Court’s commitment to holding local agencies accountable to the plain language contained in the publicly available planning documents.

In 2007, a developer submitted an application to the City of Orange to develop residential units on 50 acres of land formerly used as a golf course. Both the City and developer agreed that a General Plan amendment was required to change the property’s land use designation from “Open Space” to allow for one-acre residential development lots. In 2011, the City adopted a General Plan amendment that implemented a never-recorded 1973 City resolution that had changed the land designations for the Property to allow for residential development. Some local residents opposed the change to the land use designation and circulated a referendum challenging the General Plan amendment. The developer sued to stop the referendum and the residents cross-complained. After the lower court entered judgment in favor of the developer, the opponents appealed and the Court of Appeal granted a stay. In 2012, the referendum passed and the City’s General Plan amendment was overturned.
Despite the referendum passing, the City argued that the referendum was moot because the 1973 resolution already designated the property for residential development. However, because the 1973 resolution was never recorded, no subsequent City planning document ever reflected the designation change for the property. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal affirmed the City’s approval of the project on the basis that it was within the City’s discretion to find the residential development project consistent with the City’s 2010 General Plan.

The California Supreme Court reversed, finding that the City abused its discretion in finding the residential development project consistent with the 2010 General Plan. The City Council’s consistency finding was conditioned entirely upon the General Plan amendment that was ultimately negated by the referendum. As all relevant land use designations for the property were exclusively “Open Space” in the City’s policy maps, and because the 1973 Resolution was never recorded, the Court held that no reasonable person could conclude that the property could be developed for residential units without a General Plan amendment. Accordingly, the Court held that the City lacked substantial evidence to support its consistency determination because the only amendment to the 2010 General Plan that changed the designation of the property to allow for residential development had been overturned by the citizen referendum.

Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation reiterates the principle that a General Plan is a local government’s long-term blueprint for the community’s vision of future development. As such, it must accurately and steadfastly reflect the city’s most current land use policies. The California Supreme Court ultimately concluded that public access to a city’s General Plan has little value if policies contained within are not readily apparent or changed without proper notice.