Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 12, 2017

CA Supreme Court Finds City Abused Its Discretion in Interpreting General Plan to Permit Residential Development

In 2006, Milan REI IV LLC purchased over 50 acres of land in the Orange Park Acres area in the City of Orange. Milan desired to build a 39-unit residential development on the property, which was formerly the home of the Ridgeline Golf Course and Country Club. Because the private development would replace public open space, the project became highly controversial. Despite this, the City advanced the Ridgeline Project by approving Milan’s request to amend its general plan and permit development on the Property. In response, the Orange Parks Association and a political action committee called Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation challenged the City’s amendment by referendum. The City then argued that there was no need to amend its general plan to approve the Ridgeline Project because a resolution from 1973 permitted residential development on the Property. The City therefore concluded that the referendum, whatever its outcome, would have no effect. In 2012, 56 percent of voters rejected the City’s general plan amendment. The Court of Appeal held that despite the persistence of “erroneous information” in the 2010 General Plan, the vote did not alter the reasonableness of the City Council’s conclusion that the open space designation was an error and not a substantive inconsistency.

The court found that the invalidity of the City’s consistency finding was evident from the text of the 2010 General Plan and the City’s and Milan’s own understanding of it. The 2010 General Plan included a land use policy map, which designated the property as open space and defined “Open Space” as “steep hillsides, creeks, or environmentally sensitive areas that should not be developed.” Additionally, the publicly available OPA Plan, which was required to be consistent with the land use element under the terms of the 2010 General Plan, also designated the property for use as a golf course and, in the alternative, as open space. Thus, the court found that due to this specific land use designation for the property, no reasonable person could conclude that the property could be developed without a general plan amendment changing its land use designation.

While the City’s proposed General Plan amendment put its citizens on notice that residential development would be possible, the Orange Citizens successfully conducted a referendum campaign against the amendment. The court held that if “legislative bodies cannot nullify the referendum power by voting to enact a law identical to a recently rejected referendum measure,” then the City could not do the same by means of an unreasonable “administrative correction” to its general plan undertaken “with intent to evade the effect of the referendum petition.” Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation v. Superior Court, 2016 WL 7241419 (CA 12/15/2016)


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