'It's Good Enough For Government Work': Project May Violate Some General Plan Policies So Long As It Is Consistent With A Majority Of The General Plan

Save Our Heritage Organisation v. City of San Diego (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 163.

By Glen C. Hansen

Balboa Park, a large urban park in San Diego, includes the buildings and plazas constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the adjoining buildings and improvements subsequently constructed for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition (the Complex). Visitors enter the Complex via the Cabrillo Bridge (“Bridge”). The Bridge and the Complex are a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark District. A project was proposed to return the plazas to purely pedestrian zones. The project included a new “Centennial” bridge, reconfigured roadways and a new pay-parking structure. The City of San Diego (“City”) approved a site development plan for the project.

Save Our Heritage Organisation (“SOHO”) filed a petition for writ of mandate that challenged the project. Among other things, SOHO alleged that the City erroneously approved the site development plan because the Project adversely affected the county’s General Plan. The environmental impact report acknowledged:

Although the proposed Centennial Bridge component would be inconsistent with several policies found in the Urban Design, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Elements of the General Plan, it would not adversely affect the General Plan and the project as whole would be consistent with several of the goals and policies of San Diego General Plan, as described below.

“Despite the conflicts related to the proposal of the Centennial Bridge component, the proposed development would be consistent with a majority of the goals and policies of the General Plan, the Balboa Park Master Plan and the Central Mesa Precise Plan and overall would restore pedestrian and park uses to the core of the Central Mesa area of Balboa Park and alleviate pedestrian/vehicular conflicts. Therefore, the proposed development would not adversely affect the applicable land use plans.”

SOHO argued that because the significant impact to the Bridge offended the Secretary of the Interior's standards for the rehabilitation of historic buildings, the Project necessarily violated the policies expressed in the historic preservation element, the urban design element, and the recreation element of City's policies, and therefore there was no substantial evidence to support City's global finding that the Project would not adversely affect City's applicable land use plans. Essentially, SOHO argued that, as long as a project opponent can identify any stated goal or policy within an applicable land use plan that would be adversely affected by a project, the decision maker is precluded from finding approval of a project would not adversely affect the applicable land use plans even if the decision maker finds, based on substantial evidence, the proposed project would be consistent with the vast majority of the goals and policies of the applicable land use plans.

Upholding the City’s determination of consistency, the Court of Appeal rejected SOHO’s argument for several reasons.

First, when reviewing a challenge to a project based on the project's alleged inconsistency with the relevant land use documents, a court must accord great deference to a local governmental agency's determination of consistency with its own general plan. “A reviewing court's role is simply to decide whether the city officials considered the applicable policies and the extent to which the proposed project conforms with those policies.”

Second, the Subdivision Map Act (Govt. Code § 66473.5) does not require precise conformity of a proposed project with the land use designation for a site, or an exact match between the project and the applicable general plan. Instead, a finding of consistency requires only that the proposed project be compatible with the objectives, policies, general land uses, and programs specified in’ the applicable plan. Thus, a project must be “in agreement or harmony with” the terms of the applicable plan, and does not need to be in rigid conformity with the plan. The court’s function “is simply to decide whether the city officials considered the applicable policies and the extent to which the proposed project conforms with those policies, whether the city officials made appropriate findings on this issue, and whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence.” The court found that this criteria was met in this case.

Third, there was substantial evidence to support the City’s finding that, although the proposed alterations to the Bridge transgressed certain aspects of some articulated goals and policies of the applicable land use plans, the proposed development would be consistent with a majority of the goals and policies of the General Plan, the Balboa Park Master Plan and the Central Mesa Precise Plan. The court explained that, “[t]he mere fact the Project had some elements that conflicted with a few of the policies embodied in the applicable land use plans does not preclude City from finding the Project as a whole was consistent with the objectives, policies, general land uses, and programs specified in the applicable plans.”

Glen C. Hansen is Senior Counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

 

 

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