In Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1079, the Second District Court of Appeal held that a charter city may approve a general plan amendment for a single project site, even if initially requested by a project applicant, so long as the city’s charter did not “clearly and explicitly” limit or restrict such an action.
In 2013, Real Party in Interest Philena Property Management, LLC (Philena) filed for a land use permit with the City of Los Angeles (City), a charter city, to convert an auto mall into residential, retail, and office space close to a new light rail station and other transit (Project). The Project required preparation of an EIR, a development agreement between Philena and the City, several conditional use permits, and, of chief concern here, an amendment to the City’s general plan to change the project site land use designation. The City reviewed the proposal, granted the project requirements, and approved the Project in September 2016. Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment (Westsiders), an association of neighborhood residents, filed suit.
Westsiders alleged that the City exceeded its authority in the Los Angeles City Charter section 555 subdivisions (a) and (b) (Sections 555(a) and 555(b)) by approving a general plan amendment for a single parcel and allowing Philena to effectively initiate the amendment. The trial court held that the City did not exceed its authority or abuse its discretion in amending the general plan. Further, the trial court denied Westsiders’ request for judicial notice of early drafts and proposed amendments to Section 555 where interpreting the statute did not require review of its legislative history. Westsiders timely appealed.
The Appellate Court first addressed whether it is proper to seek a writ of mandate or administrative mandamus for relief in this situation. Westsiders contended that Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 applied and the award of an administrative mandamus is appropriate here “to review the final adjudicative action of an administrative body.” The Court found that this claim misplaced as a general plan amendment is a legislative action and Government Code section 65301.5 explicitly says that a legislative action is to be reviewed for a writ of mandate, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1085.
The Court then laid out that such legislative acts are presumed valid per San Francisco Tomorrow v. City and County of San Francisco (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 498. Further, the Court must be “[m]indful of the rule that [it] cannot construe a charter to restrict municipal power without a clear mandate in the charter itself.” Such a restraint requires “clear and explicit limitations or restrictions” in the charter itself. This standard is in addition to principles of statutory construction which require the Court to, in the first instance, rely on the plain language of the statute. If clear, the Court need not go any further in its inquiry. Ultimately, the City’s interpretation of its own charter is “entitled to great weight and respect unless shown to be clearly erroneous and must be upheld if it has a reasonable basis.”
With this in mind, the Court turned to Westsiders’ arguments that the City exceeded its authority in approving the general plan amendment. Section 555(a) permits general plan amendments for, as pertinent here, “geographic areas, provided that the part or area involved has significant social, economic, or physical identity.” Westsiders claimed that a single parcel of land could not qualify as a geographic area. Relying on the dictionary definitions for each word, the Court determined that “geographic area” means any physical region. The parcel was indeed a physical region that satisfied this definition despite its singularity and small size. Second, Westsiders claimed that the parcel did not have “significant social, economic, or physical identity” as it was a car lot in a busy area with no distinctive features. The Court held that the City had no “clear and explicit” categorical limits on what it could and could not determine to be significant. Consequentially, the Court held in favor of not restricting municipal power.
Westsiders alleged that the City was required to make explicit findings that the project site qualified as a geographic area of significant economic or physical identity. The Court, after pointing out that Westsiders did not cite any authority for this claim, held that the City was not required to make explicit findings for a legislative act per San Francisco Tomorrow. The City did find that the project site had a significant physical and economic identity near a transit-oriented area and was one of the largest underutilized parcels in the area. These findings, though unnecessary, supported the City’s decision to issue a general plan amendment for the site.
The Court then addressed Westsiders’ argument that the City violated Section 555(b) by allowing Philena to initiate a general plan amendment with a project proposal. The Section provides “[t]he Council, the City Planning Commission, or the Director of the Planning Commission may propose amendments to the General Plan.” The Court found that, while the Charter outlined certain permissions for initiating an amendment, it did not provide any “clear and explicit limitation” to do so. The Court held that, absent such a limitation, the City did not violate Section 555(b) in responding to Philena’s request for the amendment.
Finally, the Court addressed Westsiders’ contention that the City’s action constituted impermissible spot zoning where there was no “substantial public need.” Since Westsiders did not raise this claim at the trial level, they waived their right to appeal the issue.
The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the petition.
Claims against a charter city’s legislative action must be supported by “clear and explicit” limitations in the plain language of the city’s charter.