As discussed in a prior post, Downey Brand recently prevailed on appeal and successfully defended one of its clients against a challenge to its proposed commercial development project in Modesto. The Fifth District Court of Appeal originally issued an unpublished opinion in Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation Association v. City of Modesto, but on July 1 ordered publication of a portion of the opinion addressing a key argument concerning general plan consistency. As such, local agencies can now cite this decision as legal precedent confirming the deference owed by the courts to cities and counties interpreting their own general plans.
In this case, the proposed project was a shopping center to be built on vacant land in Modesto adjacent to a residential neighborhood. In January 2014, the Modesto City Council approved the entitlements for the project – including a general plan amendment and zoning change – and certified the project EIR. A neighborhood group filed a challenge with the Stanislaus County Superior Court, alleging that the City’s actions violated a number of policies in the City’s general plan, including “neighborhood plan prototype” (“NPP”) policies, and that the EIR failed to comply with CEQA for that reason and on several other grounds (involving traffic impact mitigation, urban decay impacts, and the statement of overriding considerations). The trial court denied the petition on all grounds.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. In the published portion of the opinion, the Court addressed the project’s consistency with the general plan NPP policies. First, the Court set forth a comprehensive summary of the applicable law and standard of review, which confirms the broad discretion enjoyed by local agencies when making general plan consistency determinations. In addition to citing and quoting numerous prior decisions, the Court stated:
- “Where, as here, a governing body has determined that a particular project is consistent with the relevant general plan, that conclusion carries a strong presumption of regularity that can be overcome only by a showing of abuse of discretion.”
- “Moreover, judicial review of consistency findings is highly deferential to the local agency.”
- “In applying the substantial evidence standard, we resolve reasonable doubts in favor of the City’s finding and decision. . . . The essential inquiry is whether the City’s finding of consistency with the General Plan was ‘reasonable based on the evidence in the record’ . . . . Generally speaking, the determination that a project is consistent with a city’s general plan will be reversed only if the evidence was such that no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.”
With these principles in mind, the Court then reviewed the City’s determination that the project was consistent with the NPP policies. One of those policies stated that a 7 to 9-acre neighborhood shopping center, “containing 60,000 to 100,000 square feet of gross leasable space, should be located in each neighborhood.” Here, the project at issue consisted of approximately 170,000 square feet of commercial space in an 18-acre shopping center. The City argued that the plain language of the policies demonstrated that they were intended as “guidance,” not “mandatory limitations,” and that the City’s past practice in approving shopping centers exceeding the NPP policy size specifications demonstrated its consistent interpretation of the policies as flexible. Petitioner disagreed, taking the position that each of the NPP policies should be treated as a mandatory development standard.
The Court ruled for the City, concluding that “the wording of the NPP [policies] is reasonably consistent with the interpretation given to it by the City.” The Court also found substantial evidence in the record to support the City’s claim that it had “a consistent practice” of treating “the acreage and square footage description in the NPP policy as a flexible guide to neighborhood development, rather than a strict limitation on the size of shopping centers.”
Overall, this decision reaffirms that courts must defer to cities and counties both in the interpretation of general plan requirements and in determining compliance with those requirements. As such, the opinion should prove very useful to local agencies defending against related legal challenges under CEQA and/or the Planning and Zoning Law.