People for Proper Planning v. City of Palm Springs (April 22, 2016, E062725) ____ Cal.App.4th ____. 

By William W. Abbott

In 2013, the City of Palm Springs amended its general plan to remove any mention of minimum densities in the residential land districts. The text of the general plan in some residential districts provided for a range of densities, in others an average density or one stated density. The general plan also provided that the stated densities at the upper end were maximums, but the lower end reflected “the minimum amount of development anticipated, provided that all other required conditions can be met.” The City Council’s resolution adopting the amendment provided in part that “the current and past practice of the city… is to consider only the maximum density allowed within each land category and consider and approve lower density projects.” The Council passed the resolution relying upon a categorical exemption (Class 5; “minor alterations in land use limitations in areas of average slope of less than 20%, which do not result in any changes in land use or density….”). A citizens group filed suit, challenging the amendment on CEQA grounds as well as violations of the state planning and zoning law. The trial court ruled in favor of the city and the petitioners appealed. In the published portion of the decision, the appellate court reversed the City’s use of an exemption.

Surprisingly, the appellate court did not cite the Supreme Court’s decision in Berkeley Hillside Preservation v. City of Berkeley (2015) 241 Cal.App.4th 943, on judicial review of CEQA exemptions. The appellate court’s first point was that the amendment facially conflicted with the terms of the exemption in that that it resulted in change in densities. Accepting for the sake of argument the City’s position that the amendment simply reflected actual city practices, the appellate court noted that the petitioner had presented sufficient evidence of a fair argument (without elaborating on that evidence) and that the general plan amendment was capable of significant cumulative effects to the supply of high density, low and moderate income housing. To this latter point, the court noted that the 2007 General Plan EIR discussed the role of high density housing to meet its housing needs and to avoid unnecessary conversion of surrounding desert lands. The Court then questioned the City’s ability to meet its fair share of housing as a basis to overturn the use of the CEQA exemption.

The court went on to address the City’s argument that the baseline had not changed, asserting that as the City had not interpreted its general plan in a manner which dictated minimum densities, there was therefore no change from the baseline as a result of the general plan amendment. The Court concluded that once the general plan was adopted, it became the new baseline. Since the general plan relied upon the anticipated densities to meet housing needs, the question remained as to the City’s ability to meet its fair share housing needs. Although the published decision lacks critical analysis, the inference is that this unanswered question defeated the use of the categorical exemption.

Comment: The court’s characterization of the general plan as the new baseline while in many circumstances this would be an ideal approach in reducing CEQA burdens, this court’s approach is at variance with a number other long standing CEQA decisions, and lead agencies should be cautious about uncritical reliance upon this approach. The decision is best viewed as an unusual analysis of a CEQA exemption and left at that.

William W. 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, 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.