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In Pacific Palisades Residents Association, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles et al. (2023) 88 Cal.App.5th 1338, the Second District issued a strong opinion affirming the trial court’s ruling that a proposed eldercare facility in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood was consistent with the Los Angeles Zoning Code and exempt from CEQA review under the Class 32 exemption for infill development projects, and that substantial evidence supported the California Coastal Commission’s (CCC) decision that the Coastal Development Permit (CDP) appeal presented no substantial issue under the Coastal Act. Downey Brand attorneys Kathryn Oehlschlager and Hina Gupta represented the City of Los Angeles in this case.

The proposed project is a four-story eldercare facility with 82 residential rooms and various commercial uses in a 64,646 square foot building, located on a vacant one-acre lot in an area of the Pacific Palisades within the Coastal Zone. In 2017, the developer applied to the City’s planning department for permission to build the project, which included an application for a CDP. Following multiple layers of review and administrative appeals, the City approved the Project, issued the CDP, and found the project fell within the Class 32 exemption. The CCC also weighed in on appeal, finding no substantial issue in connection with the City’s issuance of the CDP. Pacific Palisades Residents Association (“Association”) filed suit against the City and the CCC, alleging a wide variety of violations of CEQA and the Coastal Act. The trial court denied the Association’s writ petition in 2020 and the Association appealed.

On appeal, the Association’s primary argument was that the proposed building was larger than the Los Angeles zoning code allows, alleging that the City incorrectly applied provisions related to the lot’s “buildable area.” The argument boiled down to one sentence in section 12.22.A.18.(c)(3), which the court found, breaking down each of the four bracketed elements in the section, meant the City had correctly concluded that no yard requirement applied to the residential portions of the eldercare facility. Notably, the Association attempted to introduce a variety of extra-record materials on appeal via a motion for judicial notice, which the Court denied.

The Court also rejected the Association’s request to address issues outside the scope of the appeal. The City’s briefing noted that the issue of consistency with the Los Angeles Municipal Code would be further evaluated by the City Planning Department at the “plan check” phase, which could then be subject to a separate judicial proceeding. The Association argued that the Court should preemptively address any such proceeding in the instant appeal, but the Court decided to “decline this unprecedented invitation to attempt to moot a future appeal in the name of judicial economy.”  

The Association alleged that the City erred in granting the project an infill development CEQA exemption, which applies when: 1) the project is consistent with the applicable general plan designation and all applicable general plan policies, in additional to applicable zoning designation and regulation; 2) the project is within city limits on a site no more than five acres substantially surrounded by urban uses; 3) the site has no value as habitat for endangered, rare, or threatened species; 4) project approval would not result in any significant effects related to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality; and 5) the site can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services. 

The Association argued that the project “will be architecturally incompatible with the neighborhood, and the project will spoil the view.” Applying the deferential substantial evidence standard, the Court rejected these arguments in turn, finding that the City’s decision to approve the project, and findings in support of that approval, were “eminently reasonable.”

On the issue of compatibility with the neighborhood and impacts on views, the Court found that the Association was effectively arguing for “architectural uniformity,” which was not required, and upheld the City’s finding that the architectural character of the proposed project was compatible with the urbanized area and the community plan for Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades. The Association also challenged the CCC’s decision that the Association’s appeal presented no substantial issue under the Coastal Act, based on the same aesthetic arguments.  Again applying the deferential substantial evidence standard of review, the court rejected the Association’s challenge on all issues. 

This case strongly reaffirms a principle that is entrenched in the law, but which opponents so often challenge: that agencies are owed substantial deference on issues of code interpretation, plan consistency, and determinations of fact within the scope of their authority. The Court correctly and repeatedly clarified its role:

  • The substantial evidence standard “means that, when a city approves a proposed development as consistent with its general plan, reviewing courts defer to that approval as an extension of the entity’s unique competence to interpret its own policies. If the city has followed proper procedures, courts must defer to the city’s decision unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion. . . . This case aptly illustrates the wisdom of this deferential standard.” 
  • “We repeat that ‘[o]nce a general plan is in place, it is the province of elected city officials to examine the specifics of a proposed project to determine whether it would be ‘in harmony’ with the policies stated in the plan. It is, emphatically, not the role of the courts to micro-manage these development decisions.” [internal citations omitted]
  • “We do not reweigh evidence. Elected officials have latitude to weigh competing and subjective notions of beauty and blight. Our judicial role in this setting is to defer to their judgment when, as here, substantial evidence supports it.”
  • “The question is whether a reasonable person could agree with the City’s conclusion that adding this urban building to this urban area was compatible with” community plans.