Yes in My Backyard v. City of Los Angeles
(2022) (Case No. 21STCP03883)
The grant of a writ petition in a Los Angeles trial court ruling, Yes in My Backyard v. City of Los Angeles (issued July 29, 2022), continues the recent signaling from the courts that local public agencies cannot arbitrarily delay or reject housing but must comply with strictly-construed obligations under California housing laws. While of no precedential value, the court’s careful analysis is informative. First, the 42-page ruling provides a comprehensive summary of key provisions of SB 330, the Housing Accountability Act (HAA), and the Permit Streamlining Act (PSA). Second, the ruling highlights local agencies’ responsibility to conform their planning processes to, and follow the specific requirements of, state housing regulations, and illustrates the consequences of agencies’ failure to do so. Third, the ruling clarifies Government Code section 65589.5(j)(4) requires a city to defer to its general plan’s density requirements in determining consistency with applicable zoning standards and criteria, whether or not a property’s zoning is inconsistent with the general plan. And fourth, the ruling’s detailed discussion and analysis of case-specific facts shows how facts often drive the outcome in land use cases.
Janet Jha proposed a multi-family housing project at her Woodland Hills property, zoned RA-1 per the City’s Municipal Code while also having a Limited Commercial land use designation under the Community Plan/General Plan. After the City of Los Angeles (City) refused to accept two SB 330 preliminary applications and two project development applications submitted by petitioner, she filed a petition for writ of mandate to compel the City to deem the development application complete and to approve the project. The court granted the petition and issued a writ deeming the application submitted and complete, but declining to order the City to approve the project.
Claims Under SB 330
A part of the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, SB 330 provides for a new preliminary application process for housing development projects. The purpose of the SB 330 application is to “freeze or lock into place” development standards in effect on the application submittal date. A preliminary application is deemed to have been submitted, and neither permits nor requires an affirmative determination by the agency, when the applicant provides 17 specific pieces of information to the agency per Government Code section 65941.1. Within 180 days from the preliminary application submittal, the applicant shall submit a development project application that includes all the information needed for its processing. If such application is timely deemed incomplete by the agency within 30 days of submittal, the agency must specify the missing information, and the applicant then has 90 days to provide the requested information or the application will expire.
In Yes in My Backyard, the City repeatedly refused to accept petitioner’s preliminary and development applications even though they contained the information required by SB 330 because the City asserted the project did not comply with the property’s RA-1 zoning. The court disagreed and found that petitioner formally submitted the SB 330 preliminary application on May 19, 2020, when she provided the statutorily-required information listed in Government Code section 65941.1(a) and paid the requisite fees. The City’s refusal to enter her application into its files did not render the submission informal. Further, the City failed to carry out its ministerial duty to accept the SB 330 application and violated SB 330 by requesting information beyond the specific list set by state law. The court also rejected the City’s argument that its acceptance of the preliminary application after petitioner commenced litigation rendered the issue moot. A judicial declaration was needed to give petitioner the benefit of locked-in development standards as of the time the preliminary application was submitted in May 2020.
Claims Under the PSA
The PSA provides strict time limits for agencies to act on an application. Specifically, Government Code section 65943 requires the City to make a written completeness determination within 30 calendar days of application submittal, or the application “shall be deemed complete.”
With regards to petitioner’s first project application submitted on August 18, 2020, the court agreed with the City that the planner’s August 28, 2020 email constituted a written notice of incompleteness of the application. However, the second development application submitted in January 2021 purported to address prior deficiencies, and the City’s response to it outside the 30-day window was untimely and in violation of the PSA such that petitioner’s application must be deemed complete.
The court also found that the City violated the PSA when it did not provide for a process to appeal the completeness determination. Further, when petitioner brought an administrative appeal under a different process, the City’s ruling 178 days-later was too late because the PSA requires a final determination on an appeal within 60 days or the application shall be “deemed complete.” Thus, petitioner’s development application was deemed complete in light of the City’s failure to provide a timely appeal.
Claims Under the HAA
The HAA greatly limits a local government’s ability to deny housing development projects that comply with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards. Further, Government Code section 65589.5(j)(4) provides a project “is not inconsistent with the applicable zoning code standards and criteria, and shall not require a rezoning, if the housing development project is consistent with objective general plan standards and criteria but the zoning for the project site is inconsistent with the general plan.”
Petitioner contended that section 65589.5(j)(4) mandates a determination of compliance with the City’s zoning code standards and criteria because the project was consistent with General Plan density. Petitioner argued the City was required to permit the density allowed by the General Plan. The City, on the other hand, argued that section 65589.5(j)(4) required an inconsistency between the zoning and general plan before any requirement is imposed to allow development; it asserted no such inconsistency existed.
Employing rules of statutory construction to the key language in Government Code section 65589.5(j)(4), and after reviewing legislative history for the relevant provisions, the court agreed with petitioner that “section 65589.5(j)(4) requires a city to defer to its general plan’s density requirements whether a property’s zoning is consistent or inconsistent with the general plan.” The court found this interpretation consistent with the Legislature’s directive that the HAA “be interpreted and implemented in a manner to afford the fullest possible weight to the interest of, and the approval and provision of housing.”
Regardless, the court found the property’s zoning inconsistent with the General Plan such that the City must defer to the General Plan density. Under the Community Plan/General Plan, the property can have commercial and multi-family residential uses; but, under its zoning designation (RA-1), such uses are prohibited. Thus, the City violated the HAA when it disapproved the General Plan-density consistent application and directed petitioner to pursue a rezoning based on the zoning-based inconsistency finding.
In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the City’s contention that there was no inconsistency between the zoning and Community Plan because the RA-1 zone’s one unit-per-lot limitation was within the 43-unit density allowance of the Limited Commercial designation under the Community Plan. Relying on a depublished opinion (Warner Ridge Associates v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 2 Cal.App.4th 238) that analyzed and rejected the City’s hierarchy of zoning use theory, the court reiterated that “[n]o reasonable person can seriously believe that a zoning ordinance which prohibits all commercial uses in an area designated in the general plan for commercial uses is ‘consistent’ with the general plan.” Pursuant to the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the court found the City estopped from arguing its cascading zoning that prohibits an entire category of uses permitted by the general plan is consistent with that plan.
Petitioner urged the court to find that the City’s actions in denying the development application were frivolous and in bad faith, necessitating an order of project approval by the City within 60 days. While the court sided with petitioner in deeming the preliminary and development applications submitted and complete, it did not take the next step under the HAA to order project approval. The City had a “legitimate, if wrong” interpretation of section 65589.5(j)(4). A writ was issued directing the City to comply with the HAA within 60 days.
Despite the lack of precedential value in the context of litigation, this unpublished trial court ruling is a much-needed reminder for local agencies to revisit their established planning procedures to ensure compliance with state housing laws and to establish proper training for its planning staff on all relevant deadlines and application processes. Failure to do so may lead to a court finding of “bad faith” under the HAA and its resultant directive to approve the project.
[This alert does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created by viewing or responding to this alert. Legal counsel should be sought for answers to specific legal questions.]