By William W. Abbott

Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302. In the minds of most local planners, spot zoning is typically associated with downzoning of a smaller parcel in circumstances in which the surrounding property is similar in character, but which retains a more intensive zoning designation. From the perspective of the California’s Fourth Appellate District, a rezoning which creates the converse result (that is the donut hole being rezoned to a more intensive classification) can also trigger a claim of spot zoning. In the facts of Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, the trial court invalidated the rezoning. On appeal however, the appellate court found the rezoning to be a valid exercise of the police power and upheld the rezoning.

In 1956, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange received a gift of 7.25 acres of land. In 2003, the Diocese teamed with a developer for purposes of developing a senior housing project. The site was subject to the North Tustin Specific Plan and was designated for single family residential uses. Project entitlements included an amendment of the specific plan and a rezoning to a new seniors zoning district, a use permit and a site development permit.

In a decision of first impression, the appellate court concluded that the upzoning of this parcel constituted spot zoning. The required legal review must go to the next question, and that is whether the rezoning is irrational. The burden is on the challenger to prove this point. Pointing to state statute, the County’s Housing Element and the findings in the environmental impact report, the appellate court concluded that the rezoning was in the public interest.

The opponents also argued that the approvals violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the states from making laws “respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Although the approving ordinance referenced the use of the property to fulfill a faith based mission, the appellate court concluded that the ordinance primarily served a secular purpose, that being providing housing for seniors and therefore, did not violate the establishment clause. The case was remanded for trial on the CEQA claims.

This case brings to mind one of Miles’ Laws: where you stand depends upon where you sit. By this I mean a property owner subject to a downzoning or the imposition of additional restrictions not borne by similar surrounding properties will see those special regulations as spot zoning. Such a claim led to a successful claim for damages against the City of San Clemente in Avenida San Juan Partnership v. City of San Clemente (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 1256.

Good planning has nothing to fear from spot zoning (up or down). As these and other spot zoning cases illustrate, a successful defense turns on making a good record.

William Abbott is a partner 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, or 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.