Los Angeles Superior Court Decision May Disrupt Local Governments' Land Use Practices
Court Rules Los Angeles Cannot Require Rezoning of Housing Site Included in General Plan Housing Element; Housing Element Compliant Projects Eligible for Expedited Permit Processing and Mandatory Approvals
- Following its longtime practice, the City of Los Angeles Planning Department initially refused to process, and later denied, an applicant's proposal to build a multifamily development in an area of the San Fernando Valley that was zoned for single-family housing, but nonetheless had a general plan designation that allowed multifamily development.
- A 2018 amendment to California's Housing Accountability Act (HAA) requires local governments to accommodate development at the density allowed in their general plan in circumstances where zoning ordinances are inconsistent with the general plan.
- In a recent lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, the applicant together with petitioner Yes In My Back Yard challenged the City's denial and argued that the amended HAA required local governments to accommodate the general plan's density, even when zoning classifications dictated lower densities.
- This interpretation, if it prevails, has the potential to significantly disrupt local governments' practices with respect to processing requests for housing development approvals.
YIMBY et al. v. City of Los Angeles et al.1 concerned a proposed 67-unit housing development in the Woodland Hills area of the San Fernando Valley.2 While the City of Los Angeles's (the City) general plan designated this area for multifamily residential developments, the zoning requirements imposed by the applicable Canoga Park-Winnetka-Woodland Hills-West Hills communities imposed a maximum density of one residence per lot, mandating single-family detached homes.3 The City cited this zoning designation, among other things, in denying the project.4
Petitioner Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) alleged that the City's treatment of the project violated Senate Bill 330 (SB330),5 the Housing Accountability Act (HAA)6 and the Permit Streamlining Act (PSA).7 The Los Angeles Superior Court's interpretation, if it prevails, has the potential to significantly disrupt local governments' practices with respect to processing requests for housing development approvals. This alert focuses upon YIMBY's HAA-related argument and the court's discussion of that argument.8
Background on the HAA and Subdivision (j)
Prior to 2018, the HAA did not account for situations where a general plan's standards conflict with zoning requirements with respect to allowable density. As the YIMBY court noted, this statutory silence allowed local governments to "avoid compliance with the HAA by maintaining low zoning densities that force a project into a discretionary rezoning process[,]" even where the density was permitted by the applicable general plan.9 The California legislature amended the HAA in 2018 to address this loophole, adding two sentences to the HAA that were codified as subdivision (j)(4):
For purposes of this section, a proposed housing development project is not inconsistent with the applicable zoning standards and criteria, and shall not require a rezoning, if the housing development project is consistent with the objective general plan standards and criteria but the zoning for the project site is inconsistent with the general plan. If the local agency has complied with paragraph (2), the local agency may require the proposed housing development project to comply with the objective standards and criteria of the zoning which is consistent with the general plan, however, the standards and criteria shall be applied to facilitate and accommodate development at the density allowed on the site by the general plan and proposed by the proposed housing development project.10
The YIMBY petitioners alleged that precisely the scenario that the 2018 HAA amendments sought to prevent had occurred with respect to the Woodland Hills application: the general plan contemplated multifamily development, but the zoning classification established under the Community Plan specifically limited residential densities to one single-family residence per lot. In response, the City looked to the zoning limitation and said than the application was not complete and required no action by the City unless the applicant sought to change the zoning in a discretionary process.
The Court's Interpretation
In resolving the parties' HAA dispute, the court closely parsed both sentences of subdivision (j)(4). With respect to the first sentence, the court reasoned that "a project is not inconsistent with [the broader category of] zoning standards…if it is consistent with the objective general plan standards even though the zoning is inconsistent with the general plan."11 In other words, "a city must look to its general plan if the zoning is inconsistent."12 The court found that "the Property's zoning is clearly inconsistent with the General Plan designation[,]"13 and accordingly its disposition ultimately turned on the first sentence of (j)(4). Nevertheless, the court also provided a lengthy and illuminating discussion of subdivision (j)(4)'s second sentence, adopting a reading that could have broader impacts on land use approvals.
The parties disputed whether, absent an inconsistency between the general plan and zoning, local governments were required to accommodate the densities allowed by the general plan. The City had asserted that (j)(4) in its entirety only comes into play in the event of such an inconsistency. In the City's view, absent an inconsistency, it was entitled to apply its objective zoning standards (which included density limits as well as setback requirements, height limits, etc.) to a project, regardless of whether the application of those zoning standards would frustrate development at the allowable density.14 YIMBY, on the other hand, argued that each sentence of subdivision (j)(4) covers a different scenario: the first sentence applies in the event of an inconsistency between zoning and the general plan, while the second sentence applies where there is no such inconsistency. Thus, in YIMBY's view, "the first sentence…provides that a city must look to its general plan if the zoning is inconsistent, and the second sentence provides that a city may look to its zoning's objective standards if the zoning and general plan are consistent and must do so to facilitate and accommodate the site's density allowed by the general plan."15 Critically, YIMBY posited that "[i]n either circumstance, the city is required to permit the density allowed by the general plan."16
The court agreed with YIMBY, writing that "the City's interpretation ignores the plain meaning of the second sentence[,]" which "expressly permits a city…to require a project to comply with those objective zoning standards that are consistent with the general plan, but it must do so in accordance with the general plan density. The plain language of the second sentence does not require any inconsistency for the general plan density to apply."17
Thus, the court concluded, "section 65589.5(j)(4) requires a city to defer to its general plan's density requirements whether a property's zoning is consistent or inconsistent with the general plan."18
The City will almost certainly appeal the court's determination. Moreover, the facts presented here align with those of the Snowball case (Snowball West Investments, LP v. City of Los Angeles, Case No. 20STCP00771), which involved a different proposed housing project in another part of the City with RA-1 zoning.19 However, should the court's reasoning prevail, its interpretation of this provision has the potential to significantly limit local governments' discretion over proposed housing projects that are consistent with the general plan.
Most critically, under the court's reading of the statute, even local governments that have harmonized their general plan and zoning standards would be precluded from applying those zoning standards if doing so would frustrate the development of the project at the proposed density. Local governments, for instance, would be categorically precluded from applying setback, height and yard requirements contained in their zoning codes if the application of those requirements would necessitate a density reduction.
The court's reasoning also threatens an interpretive land use practice common in Southern California. Like many jurisdictions, the City long ago established a procedure for evaluating use permissibility that looked to a "hierarchical system of uses" regulated by its general plan and zoning ordinance. This hierarchy progresses from least restrictive to most restrictive, and recognizes that zoning classifications in areas allowing greater development intensity also permit less intensive uses. In other words, an area zoned for intensive commercial use categorically also permits less intensive commercial uses. In the YIMBY case, the City relied on an exhaustive argument about Footnote 9 in the City's General Plan to support its suggestion that the zoning ordinance and general plan were not in fact inconsistent, because Footnote 9 permitted more restrictive prohibitions such as density restrictions to be incorporated by reference into the general plan policies.20 The court rejected the longstanding use of the cascading hierarchy of zoning restrictions to imply general plan consistency in circumstances that thwart the residential densities contemplated by the general plan.
The YIMBY decision is remarkable for several reasons. First, despite claiming to afford deference to the City's interpretation of its own land use rules, the court seized upon an opportunity to find that state housing law principles aimed at the promotion of housing development took priority over local regulatory frameworks that traditionally have been used to thwart housing. Second, the YIMBY court went beyond the posited question where a zoning ordinance conflicted with a jurisdiction's general plan, ruling that even where there is consistency between plan and zoning, an objective zoning limitation cannot be enforced if the result would be to reduce the density of housing contemplated by a jurisdiction's general plan. Last, the court emphatically rejected the long-held practice and policies of the City's Planning Department, ruling that violations of SB330, the HAA and the PSA occurred when the City, as it has long done, finds that applications are not complete and refuses to process them when they do not conform to a staff-level determination of how an application should be processed. If the ruling prevails through appeal, the implications for how the City and other jurisdictions process housing applications could be far-reaching.
1 YIMBY et al. v. City of Los Angeles et al., Case No. 21-STCP-03883 (Cal. Super. Ct. July 29, 2022).
2 Decision at 1.
3 Decision 1, 13-14.
4 Decision at 1. Initially, the applicant sought a preliminary application approval under Senate Bill 330 (SB330), a state law that aims to lock in place existing development standards under which an application will be evaluated. Decision at 6. Initially, the City of Los Angeles (the City) refused to process the SB330 application, claiming it to be incomplete because it did not seek a zone change for the property and misstated the application for a density bonus. In a separate portion of its decision, the court ruled that the City's conduct violated SB330 and the Permit Streamlining Act (PSA).
5 Cal. Gov. Code § 65941.1.
6 Cal. Gov. Code §§ 65589.5 et seq.
7 Cal. Gov. Code §§ 65920 et seq.
8 The court also discussed the City's conduct with respect to the proposed project in other ways, raising other issues that are beyond the scope of this alert.
9 Decision at 28.
10 Cal. Gov. Code § 65589.5(j)(4).
11 Decision at 29.
12 Decision at 29.
13 Decision at 33.
14 Decision at 29-30.
15 Decision at 29.
16 Decision at 29.
17 Decision at 30. The court's interpretation of the second sentence of subdivision (j)(4) is dicta, inasmuch as it rules that the first sentence of the subdivision applies in the event of an inconsistency. However, the order clearly announces that general plan density requirements prevail of zoning requirements that operate to limit general plan density.
18 Decision at 30.
19 In Snowball, a different L.A. Superior Court judge denied a petition for mandamus following the City's denial of a zone change under similar circumstances: the general plan category for the project contemplated as many as 244 homes, but the zone category would permit only 19 homes. The City required the applicant to seek a zone change. The Snowball court reached the opposite conclusion of YIMBY – accepting the City's contention that no inconsistency existed between the general plan and the zoning ordinance, despite the disparity in allowable residential units, because a similar footnote in the plan incorporated by reference all more restrictive zoning categories into the plan. Finding no such inconsistency to exist, the Snowball court concluded that the HAA did not apply and the City was not obligated to grant an application seeking to make use of the general plan's contemplated density. Snowball is on appeal to the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal, and briefing has begun.
20 The Snowball court encountered a nearly identical footnote in a different portion of the City's general plan, and sustained the City's long time practice of hierarchical zoning interpretation – finding no conflict between plan and zoning to exist.
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