Planning, Zoning, & Development

Diane G. Kindermann (2015-2017) and William W. Abbott (2004-2017) were again selected for the Northern California Super Lawyers List in the practice areas of Land Use and Zoning law. More information is available at The firm is pleased to continue to serve private and public clients in Northern California on land use, environmental and real estate matters for more than 20 years.

In 2016, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued this warning about legislative exactions: “Until we decide this issue, property owners and local governments are left uncertain about what legal standard governs legislative ordinances and whether cities can legislatively impose exactions that would not pass muster if done administratively.” He stated there are “compelling reasons for resolving this conflict at the earliest practicable opportunity.” Abbott & Kindermann Inc.’s Senior Counsel, Glen Hansen, proposes a resolution to that conflict in his recently-published article, Let’s Be Reasonable: Why Neither Nollan/Dolan nor Penn Central Should Govern Generally-Applied Legislative Exactions After Koontz, 34 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 237 (2017).

In that article, Mr. Hansen explains why the level of constitutional scrutiny that was developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, and Dolan v. City of Tigard, should not apply to legislatively imposed exactions, provided that such exactions satisfy two key criteria: (1) The exaction is generally-applied; and (2) the exaction is applied based on a set legislative formula without any meaningful administrative discretion in that application. He argues that legislative exactions that fail to meet those two criteria should be governed by the Nollan/Dolan standard of review in the same manner as the ad hoc adjudicative exaction in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. Mr. Hansen then argues that legislative exactions that satisfy those two criteria also should not be governed by the ad hoc factored analysis in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City. Instead, Mr. Hansen argues, a “reasonable relationship” test should be applied to legislative exactions that satisfy those two criteria.

The issue addressed in the article is timely and in need of resolution by the courts. In early 2016, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas explained: “For at least two decades, however, lower courts have divided over whether the Nollan/Dolan test applies in cases where the alleged taking arises from a legislatively imposed condition rather than an administrative one. That division shows no signs of abating.” Justice Elena Kagan similarly opined that, following the Koontz decision, there is now a “cloud on every decision by every local government” that requires a person seeking a permit to pay or spend money. Mr. Hansen’s article offers a practical resolution of that constitutional conflict based on the majority and dissenting opinions in Koontz, as well as the various rationales presented in lower court decisions that have squarely addressed the issue.

Mr. Hansen’s article can be found online at .

Glen Hansen is Senior Counsel 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.

Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation v. City of Modesto (June 7, 2016, F071768) ___ Cal.App.4th ___.

By William W. Abbott

Why Words Matter In Your General Plan: Resolving Issues Of Horizontal And Vertical Consistency.

When does language in a general plan regarding the size of a shopping center denote a mandatory or directory requirement for purposes of determining consistency? It all depends upon the wording according to the Fifth Appellate District.  At issue was the City of Modesto General Plan and the policies adopted (in 1974) in the general plan as part of the Neighborhood Plan Prototype (NPP). Within neighborhoods (estimated at 480 acres), the NPP called for a 7-9 acre shopping center with 60000-100,000 square feet of gross leasable area. In 2011, a developer proposed an 18 acre shopping center with approximately 170,000 square feet of gross leasable area. While the City initially processed a negative declaration, the CEQA processing shifted to an EIR. The project was opposed by neighboring property owners, and following City approval of the project, the neighbors filed suit on both land use and CEQA grounds. The trial court ruled for the City, and the neighbors appealed. The appellate court upheld the City’s decision, but published only the portion of the opinion pertaining to the land use claims.

The land use claim tested the consistency of the shopping center with the NPP, given that it was significantly larger than the acreage range contained within the NPP. The court cited the established rule that the consistency does not require exact conformity, but general compatibility. Sequoya Hills Homeowners Association v. City of Oakland (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 704 and Friends of Lagoon Valley v. City of Vacaville (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 807. The court also noted that a city or county was entitled to deference when making those findings. The City’s findings had noted that the acreage notations in the NPP were for guidance purpose, and also noted that the City had approved a number of commercial centers in excess of the 7-9 acre range. While there was a legal debate as to whether the referenced centers were subject to the NPP, the appellate court concluded that it did not matter in the end. In the court’s view, there was substantial evidence in the record to support the City’s consistency determination in that the site fit the City’s location criteria for commercial centers and conformed to all of the other policies. One troubling argument involved the language of the NPP which recognized the need for potential minor adjustments to accommodate existing development in the area. The neighbors used this exception language to argue that the acreage range was in fact a mandatory standard. The appellate court concluded that this language, by its terms, only concerned itself with existing development and was not controlling as the question of whether or not the other NPP policies were mandatory and binding.

Comment: It is all about the staff report and findings. As this case illustrates, a city or county needs to make the case for consistency and other required determinations while the project is being processed. The reward for doing your homework is judicial deference, a worthy incentive.

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.


Stewart Enterprises, Inc. v. City of Oakland (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 410

By William W. Abbott

A judicial determination that a vested right exists brings to mind one of those folksy truisms I occasionally like to quote: even the blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. Simply stated, California’s common law rule on vested rights is hostile to land investment and development as rights are not protected until very late in the regulatory process. The Supreme Court invited the California Legislature to craft a different rule, and that invitation introduced development agreements, vesting tentative maps and the locking-in of subdivision standards into California land use practice. Other than those changes, there has been only microscopic adjustments to the common law rule which requires an applicant to acquire a building permit (or equivalent) and undertake substantial good faith expenditures based upon that permit in order to vest rights against regulatory changes since the seminal California Supreme Court decision in Avco Community Developers, Inc. v. South Coast Regional Commission (1976) 17 Cal. 3d 785.

But enough with ancient history. The latest vested rights case involves an applicant (Stewart) who obtains a permit to construct a crematorium. Stewart identified property zoned Commercial Industrial Mix 2, an intensive zoning district. City staff made a determination that a crematorium was an allowable use and granted a zoning clearance. BAAQMD issued an authority to construct in November 2011, and Stewart purchased the property in January 2012. Stewart obtained a building permit in May 2012, and at that time, the City’s code had general provisions [1]recognizing that the issuance of a building permit was a recognized vesting point against later changes in the zoning code. Stewart’s plans created community concerns, and the staff worked on an interim ordinance which then morphed into an urgency ordinance. The public supported the proposed regulatory changes. The City Council adopted the urgency ordinance which had the effect of adding the conditional use permit requirement. The ordinance contained the usual health, safety and welfare findings, and also recognized that applicants with vested rights would be exempt from the ordinance. Following passage of the ordinance, the planning director wrote Stewart advising it that a use permit was required. Stewart appealed the staff determination, and the Planning Commission, following consideration of public input opposed to the appeal, denied the appeal on a 3-2 vote. Stewart then brought suit to invalidate the Planning Commission decision, alleging eleven causes of action. The case went to trial on the administrative mandamus claim, and the trial court granted relief in favor of Stewart based upon the general vesting provisions of the City Code. Eventually, Stewart dismissed the balance of the case.

On appeal, the City argued that the later enactment requiring a conditional use permit trumped the general ordinance provisions which vested permit holders. Not according to the terms of the City’s own ordinance according to both the trial and appellate courts. The City also argued that the later ordinance which added a conditional use permit requirement was not in conflict with the vesting ordinance as it did not prohibit the activity, but simply added an additional discretionary permit requirement. Both the trial and appellate courts rejected this argument concluding the introduction of a discretionary permit requirement effectively prohibited what would have otherwise been permitted, and therefore conflicted with the local ordinance. The City’s final argument was that any impairment of Stewart’s rights were justified to protect the public welfare. The appellate decision discusses both the urgency enactment (the legislative act) and the adjudicatory act (denial of Stewart’s appeal) and refers to the evidence in front of the City in both proceedings. Looking at all of the evidence, but without distinguishing which hearing was the relevant hearing to evaluate the evidentiary support to apply a public welfare exception to the vested rights rule, the appellate court also concurred that the generalized objections presented to and by the City were insufficient to support a public welfare determination sufficient to denial Stewart of its vested rights.

PS.   The Cubs last won the Series in 1908. Perhaps the odds on vested rights in California are a better play.

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.

[1] A provision which is found in many local codes.


By William W. Abbott

City of Berkeley v. 1080 Delaware, LLC (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 1144.

As the real estate market gathers steam post-recession, many development projects involve project approvals obtained during the height of the real estate market. At the time, the sky was the limit and development economics was cast aide well before a project application was even filed. Current developers frequently want to know: Can the conditions of approval of dubious legality now be challenged? As a recent appellate decision illustrates, the time to challenge the condition may have long since passed.

Continue Reading Buyer Beware: Project Conditions Of Approval Run With The Land

By William W. Abbott

Adam Nick v. City of Lake Forest (December 23, 2014, G047115) ___ Cal.App.4th ___.

Due to over concentration of liquor licenses, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control referred an application for a determination of public convenience or necessity to the City of Lake Forest. A competitor then sought to overturn a city council’s findings in support of the license based upon four arguments: the city’s failure to act timely; improper determination by the planning commission; failure of the operator to provide a unique goods; and improper advocacy by the planning director.

Continue Reading Too Much Of A Good Thing? Court Upholds Findings Of Convenience/Necessity For A Liquor Sales Permit.

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.

Continue Reading Up Zoning Creating Special Benefits Can Trigger Spot Zoning Claims

By William W. Abbott

Eskeland v. City of Del Mar (February 19, 2014) ___Cal.App.4th.___. While most land use debates involve projects of physical substance, even the single family home is capable of generating appellate opinions. The most recent case involves a grant, by the City of Del Mar, of a variance from a front yard setback requirement. The variance was granted so that the owners could construct a new single family home in the footprint of the existing single family home. The history suggested that the existing home was constructed before the current setback standard was adopted. The owner proposed to reconstruct in the same footprint, but would expand the footprint parallel to the front property line. As a result, there would be a linear expansion of the building including new additional square footage to be built within the setback restriction, but no additional perpendicular intrusion into the front yard setback area. The building lot included areas with a 25% slope, and buildable area was limited.

Continue Reading Steep Lot Justified Grant Of A Variance For The Replacement Single Family Home

By Glen C. Hansen

In Lockaway Storage v. County of Alameda (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 161, the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed a trial court judgment that found that the County of Alameda was liable for $989,640.96 in damages for a temporary taking of plaintiff’s property, where the county stopped work on plaintiff’s project in light of a growth control initiative, even though the project fell within an exemption in the initiative and county officials failed to even consider such exemption, and where the county’s action in stopping the project constituted an unreasonable change from the County’s prior representations made to the property owner.

Continue Reading County’s Unreasonable Change In Position To Stop Project Results In $1 Million Temporary Takings Award.

By William W. Abbott

Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation v. The Superior Court of Orange County (July 10, 2013, G047013) ___ Cal.App.4th ___.

While not exactly a Dan Brown novel, the most recent planning law case illustrates the resulting agony which follows imprecise record keeping as to the status of previously adopted planning and regulatory documents, and how they fit in with updated general plans and other land use requirements. Without retracing all the subtle nuanced facts, this case starts with the adoption of the 1973 Orange Park Acres Specific Plan. When the City Council adopted the plan, it included amendments as recommended by the Planning Commission, nearly 40 years later, it was not clear as to what exactly those amendments were, a matter of some consequence in a later land use dispute. Over time, the City dropped the word “specific” from the plan document. The Orange Park plan was amended in later years, and was incorporated in the local general plan in 1989 and again in 2010 in the updated general plan. The descriptions of the planning document, and well as reference to the applicable land use standards varied overtime. As planners, developers, commissioners and elected officials come and go, an inconsistent understanding of the document over time is hardly surprising.

Continue Reading Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Mystery Of The Orange Park Acres Specific Plan.