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In Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 462, Plaintiffs challenged the City of San Diego’s (City) approval of a revitalization project that would result in significant impacts to a bridge that has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. The Fourth District Court of Appeal denied all of plaintiff’s arguments and upheld the City’s approval of the project.

The Court of Appeal defined the “pivotal issue” of this case as the proper interpretation of Municipal Code section 126.0504, subdivision (i)(3). Section 126.0504 provides that when the City plans to develop on a site that may result in significant impacts on resources, it must obtain a Site Development Permit. Subdivision (i)(3) of that section requires the City to find that there is no reasonable beneficial use of the property without the project.  Plaintiff challenged the City’s findings made under section 126.0504, subdivision (i)(3), arguing the City failed to provide substantial evidence supporting its decision.

Courts apply rules relating to statutory interpretation in evaluating a municipality’s interpretation of its Code.  Thus, the Court of Appeal afforded deference to the City’s interpretation and found substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the property had no reasonable beneficial use without the project. In reaching its decision, the court examined whether substantial evidence supported the City’s determination that the property’s uses in its unmodified state were unreasonable under the circumstances. The court did not ask whether a project opponent could present evidence that the property could be put to some beneficial use without the project – that, the court explained, “would set a nearly insurmountable bar.” (Id. at p. 22.)

Plaintiff alternatively argued the City presented no substantial evidence to support the finding under section 126.0504, subdivision (i)(3) that denial of the Project would make it infeasible to derive a reasonable economic return from the property. The court rejected this argument because plaintiff failed to properly preserve the issue during administrative proceedings.

Plaintiff next challenged the City’s actions under section 126.0504, subdivision (a), which requires a finding that the project would not adversely affect the City’s applicable land use plans. After reviewing the record de novo, the court found substantial evidence to support the City’s conclusion that, in spite of some inconsistencies created by impacts to the original bridge, the Project as a whole furthers the majority of the goals and policies in all of the applicable land use plans.

On cross-appeal, plaintiff alleged that by proposing to construct a pay-parking structure, the City had violated the California Statutes of 1870, which set aside certain lands to remain a “free and public park.” The court disagreed; explaining that the 1870 limitations placed on the City’s powers with regard to managing city parks was annulled when the state Legislature approved the City’s charter.

Key Point:

Courts will provide deferential treatment to a City’s interpretation of its own ordinances. In addition, the limits placed on public lands by the California 1870 Statutes are annulled when a later act of the state Legislature grants the City powers to regulate and control its own public lands.

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