Appellate court reaffirms cities’ discretion to interpret their land use plans

Jan 26, 2022

In a recent opinion, the state’s Third District Court of Appeal has upheld the longstanding legal principle that “[b]ecause policies in a general plan reflect a range of competing interests, [a city] must be allowed to weigh and balance the plan’s policies when applying them, and [is entitled to] broad discretion to construe its policies in light of the plan’s purposes.”

The case involved the city of Davis’s 2017 approval of a four-story mixed-use project — 8,950 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 27 apartments — near the railroad tracks on the perimeter of its downtown core area. When reviewing the project, the city interpreted its own general and specific plans, determined that the project was consistent with those plans, and concluded the project was a good fit for the city.

The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association sued the city, challenging its approval of the project. The association alleged — contrary to the recommendations of city staff and the conclusions of the city council — that the project’s height and scale were inconsistent with the city’s general and specific plans. The trial court agreed with the association, concluding that it did not provide a sufficient “transition” to adjacent residential areas, and directed the city to rescind all associated approvals.

The city of Davis and the project developer appealed, arguing that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard when evaluating the city’s determination. The League of California Cities, along with the California State Association of Counties and Sacramento Area Council of Governments, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the city, arguing the trial court should have deferred to the city’s determination. It was also noted in the friend-of-the-court brief that, based on substantial evidence in the record, the project was consistent with the city’s general and specific plans.

The Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that the city acted within its discretion when approving the project and the trial court erred in reversing its approval. The court explained that a city council’s determination that a project is consistent with its general plan carries “a strong presumption of regularity” and can only be overturned if the city council abused its discretion.

The opinion was originally ordered not to be published, but upon request by Cal Cities, the court published the opinion so it may be used as precedent in future cases.