Center for Community Action & Environmental Justice v. City of Moreno Valley (Aug. 23, 2018, case no. D073451) ___ Cal.App.5th ___.

The right of initiative and referendum is embedded in the California Constitution as a result of the nationwide progressive political reform movement that began at the end of the 19th century. In fact, Hiram Johnson rode this political reform issue into the winner’s circle when running for governor in 1910. As a result of its constitutional foundation, the rights of initiative and referendum are closely guarded by the courts. Over time, California courts have generally concluded that citizen voters are co-equal with locally adopted legislative bodies when acting upon legislative matters, including the field of legislative actions involving land use matters. As the most recent case demonstrates, there are state legislative limits on selected land use enactments.

In the City of Moreno Valley, a significant development project was engulfed in litigation challenging the land use approvals, including a development agreement and a CEQA document. The local voters, with the backing of the developer, then qualified an initiative measure repealing the City Council approved development agreement and approving a substantially similar development agreement. Pursuant to the elections code, the City Council faced the option of approving the development agreement as submitted or submitting the measure to the voters for approval. The City Council elected to adopt the measure.

A new round of litigation followed seeking to overturn the re-approved development agreement on several grounds, including the argument that approval of a development agreement was reserved solely to the city council or board of supervisors. This argument was predicated in part on the fact that the development agreement statute expressly allows for referendum of an ordinance approving a development agreement, but is silent with respect to use of the initiative to approve a development agreement and was based on an earlier California Supreme Court decision in Committee of Seven Thousand v. Superior Court (1988) 45 Cal.3d 491, in which the California Supreme Court concluded that implementation of special legislation concerning transportation facility funding in Orange was reserved exclusively to city councils and board of supervisors, not the voters.   

The court of appeal reached a similar conclusion with respect to development agreements. The appellate decision was influenced by the legislative recitals in the development agreement statute as to the need and benefits of stability in the planning and development process evidencing a compelling state interest. The appellate court also recognized as another argument in support of exclusive authority that the development agreement statute contemplates that a development agreement is a negotiated agreement, and that the initiative process is not conducive to negotiation. Because the power of referendum is expressly incorporated into the development agreement statute, the voters still have a protected legislative interest, just one which is less comprehensive in scope when compared to other land use matters.

William Abbott is a shareholder at Abbott & Kindermann, Inc.  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, Inc. 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.