By Cori M. Badgley

In St. Vincent’s School for Boys v. City of San Rafael (2008) 161 Cal.App.4th 989, the court addressed various issues relating to the City of San Rafael’s (“City”) approval of a new general plan. The court also addressed a claim brought by the City against St. Vincent’s School for Boys (“St. Vincent’s”) regarding obtaining reasonable costs for record preparation. (This counter-claim was published prior to the rest of the opinion and discussed in a previous article, Be Careful What You Ask For: The Costs Might Be More Than You Can Bear, on our blog.) This article focuses on St. Vincent’s claims concerning the approval of the general plan. The message consistently sent by the court was no matter how much St. Vincent’s would prefer that the general plan amendments be struck down; St. Vincent’s preferences do not matter.

St. Vincent’s and the City had a long history leading up to this litigation. Although not annexed to the City when the City began amending its general plan, the property owned by St. Vincent’s lay within the City’s sphere of influence. The prior general plan had discussed the annexation of the area as part of the City’s growth and had evaluated the property in relation to the other goals and policies of the plan. In 2003 as the City embarked on the process of updating the general plan, it developed second thoughts about St. Vincent’s property. In January of 2003, the City Council passed Resolution No. 11237, which directed staff “to prepare proposed amendments to the City’s General Plan relating to” St. Vincent’s property. Subsequently in April of 2003, the City denied an application for annexation and development of St. Vincent’s property filed by St. Vincent’s in 2002. The approved new general plan eliminated any references to annexation of the property, and the City Council directed staff to begin the process with the Local Agency Formation Commission to take the property out of the City’s sphere of influence.

Petitioner brought suit against the City, claiming that the City had violated CEQA, the Housing Element Law, and exceeded its police powers. The trial court found in favor of the City on all claims. St. Vincent’s appealed.

Petitioner sued the City Council on three grounds:

(1)   defendant and respondent City . . . unlawfully amended the provisions of its general plan to delete plans for the future annexation of property owned by St. Vincent’s;

(2)   the City violated [CEQA] by certifying an inadequate environmental impact report (EIR) for the revisions to the general plan; [and]

(3)   the housing element outlined in the City’s amended general plan is legally deficient. (P. 1.)

The trial court found in favor of the City, and Plaintiff appealed.

According to Plaintiff, the City’s amended general plan provisions were unlawful because the City decided not to annex the properties prior to conducting review under CEQA and the decision was arbitrary and capricious. The court began by explaining that “[a]lthough environmental review must take place as early as is feasible, it also must be ‘late enough to provide meaningful information for environmental assessment.’” (P.7.) In applying this rule, the appellate court found that Resolution No. 11237 directing staff on certain policies was not “approval” of a project, and therefore did not require environmental review. The environmental review would not have been meaningful at that stage of the decision-making process.

The appellate court also found that the City’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious. Plaintiff claimed that the City’s decision was based solely on the City’s desire not to approve Plaintiff’s permit application. The court focused on the fact that Plaintiff’s property had never been under the City’s jurisdiction and the City had never previously approved development permits on the property. In light of the fact that the City maintained the status quo, the court held that the City did not extend beyond its police power in adopting the amendments to the general plan. In conclusion the court stated, “St. Vincent’s may have preferred to remain with the City’s sphere of influence and ultimately to have been annexed to the City, but such preferences do not translate into a legal right to such annexation.”

Plaintiff’s second argument asserted that the EIR was insufficient under CEQA. Plaintiff’s arguments revolved around the EIR’s failure to discuss the growth displacement and other effects of not annexing Plaintiff’s property. In disagreeing with Plaintiff, the court emphasized that

an EIR is required to assess the impact of amendments to the general plan against existing conditions on the ground, not against the impact of the amendments on the previous version of the general plan. (P. 12.)

The court held that the EIR properly compared the amendments to the existing conditions, and therefore, the EIR’s analysis of the amendments was sufficient.

Lastly, Plaintiff argued that the housing element violated the housing element law by failing to identify adequate sites for residential development. The court started with the assumption that the housing element was valid and found that Plaintiff did not produce sufficient evidence to show that the City had not adequately identified sites. In conclusion, the court held that although Plaintiff may disagree with the City’s policy to satisfy the housing need within the City’s boundaries, the City had the power to make this decision. Therefore, the housing element was valid. Once again the court pointed out that St. Vincent’s opinions are irrelevant: “while St. Vincent’s may disagree with the City’s policy decision . . . it has failed in its burden to overcome the presumption.”

Cori Badgley is an associate with Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, environmental and planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann 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.