Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) 2019 Cal.App. LEXIS  646

The City of Sacramento, a charter city, approved a fifteen-story mixed use project in its Midtown area, significantly in excess of its adopted height and FAR standards. This approval was based upon a general plan policy which stated, “The City may allow new development to exceed the maximum allowed FAR or density if it is determined that the project provides a significant community benefit.” When evaluating the project, staff identified many benefits associated with the project which “outweighs strict adherence to the General Plan’s FAR.” These benefits included a high level of design, implementation of the City’s targets for increasing households in its core, location in an infill location reducing reliance on personal vehicles, and lowered carbon emissions. The City conducted CEQA review based upon the sustainable communities environmental assessment (“SCEA”). The ensuing litigation challenged both the avoidance of the development limits of the general plan as well as the SCEA. Both the trial court and Court of Appeal upheld the City’s approval.

Appellant first argued that the City’s practice violated the requirement for zoning uniformity (Gov. code section 65852.) However, this code section did not apply to the City of Sacramento as it was a charter city. Appellant next argued that the City approval violated an obligation to maintain a uniformity by virtue of the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment and California Constitution, along with a contract implied at law between property owners and the zoning authority. Acknowledging the very deferential standard of review when evaluating local land use approvals and the general plan policy, the Court found ample justification in support of the City’s actions. The detailed staff report served as the supporting rationale relied upon by the Appellate Court.

Appellant also argued that the approval constituted spot zoning. The Appellate Court rejected this claim, concluding that the zoning did not operate to create a limited zone surrounded by higher densities, nor did it preclude adjacent owners from achieving a similar benefit. Similarly, the Court of Appeal rejected the argument that there was an improper delegation of legislative authority to the Planning Commission. Pursuant to the City code, it was the city council which made the final determination. The community benefit standard was no less vague than the common public health, safety, and welfare standard which had upheld repeatedly against vagueness claims.

With respect to CEQA, Appellant challenged the City’s use of the SCEA, arguing that the MTP/SCS adopted by SACOG lacked sufficient detailed information such as building densities, but the Appellate Court concluded that MTP/SCS was not required. As a regional planning document, the SCS contained sufficient information upon which the City could determine its conformity. Petitioner also challenged the impact analysis. However, the City had addressed impacts and required mitigation measures through the initial study. While the City may not have looked at the cumulative effects of new high-rise projects in Midtown in its general plan EIR, the EIR for the SCS plan had addressed cumulative effects. That was sufficient and the City could rely upon the SCS EIR for that evaluation.

Commentary: A cornerstone of California land use law since the 1970s has been the standards for density and intensity required by Government Code Section 65302(a). This case concludes that these standards may not be cast in stone but have to be read and applied in conjunction with other relevant general plan policies. This interpretation introduces potentially significant flexibility into general plans facilitating consistency determinations and reducing the need for general plan amendments. 

William W. 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, Inc. 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.