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On December 15, 2016, the Supreme Court filed, Orange Citizens for Parks & Recreation v. Superior Court (2016) __ Cal.App.5th __  (2016 Cal. LEXIS 9595), a unanimous opinion finding a 39-unit residential development project proposed on 50 acres of land in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains could not be found consistent with the City’s General Plan.  In 1973, the City’s planning commission adopted a resolution recommending the property’s designation be amended from “Open Space” to “Other Open Space and Low Density (1 acre).”  Later in the same year, the City Council adopted the Orange Park Acre Plan, and in 1977, the City Council amended the General Plan to permit low-density residential development in Orange Park Acres, directing that the Orange Park Acre Plan be revised accordingly.  Despite these legislative actions and subsequent amendments to the City’s General Plan in 1989 and 2010, City staff never made changes to the official land use policy map in the General Plan’s land use element, and as a result the property remained designated as “Open Space” in the General Plan.

When the 39-unit residential project was proposed in 2007, the City believed that a General Plan map amendment would be required; however, the City later changed its position based on the Orange Park Acre Plan, as adopted in 1973, which permitted low-density residential uses on the site. Based on this, in June 2011, the City Council certified an EIR for the residential project and amended the General Plan to reflect the original adoption of the Orange Park Acre Plan and to clarify that low-density residential uses were permitted on the project site.

The Supreme Court held that the project was inconsistent with the City’s General Plan because none of the planning commission resolutions authorizing residential development became integrated into the Orange Park Acre Plan or the General Plan, rejecting the lower court’s finding that the General Plan included “contradictions and ambiguities” requiring deference to the City’s consistency finding. The Court seemed hesitant to give deference to the City partly because it found that no reasonable person could conclude that the property could be developed without a general plan amendment, given that the General Plan required the Orange Park Acre Plan be consistent with the General Plan policies, and that the General Plan map unambiguously designated the Property as open space.

Key Point:

Local agencies should maintain consistency among various land use documents to the maximum extent possible. A local agency should also keep the general plan updated so that reasonable persons can discern the general plan designation and policies applicable to a given piece of property.