Earlier this month, the California Court of Appeal answered a question that had been outstanding for almost two decades: What standard of review applies to beneficial spot zoning? In Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, that question was finally answered when the Court held that beneficial spot zoning will be valid only when the record demonstrates that the zoning is "in the public interest."
In 1996, Associate California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk stated in a concurring decision that although courts are traditionally deferential with respect to zoning regulations, "a more rigorous form of judicial review, fueled by a suspicion of legislative motive, has been employed when the regulation applies uniquely to a single property owner-so-called 'spot zoning.'" (Ehrlich v. City of Culver City (1996) 12 Cal.4th 854, 900.) Justice Mosk, however, failed to elaborate on what exactly "a more rigorous form of judicial review" would look like. Thus, the lower courts were left to their own devices.
In Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, an unincorporated association of grassroots community groups and area homeowners filed a writ petition challenging the County's approval of an amendment to a specific plan that added a new zoning district for senior residential housing, application of the new zoning district to a specific parcel of land, and a related "senior residential housing project" on the parcel of land. The Superior Court granted the petition, holding that the County's action amounted to impermissible beneficial spot zoning, as it resulted in land subject to less restrictive zoning than the property that surrounded it. The Court of Appeal reversed, and in doing so established how courts are to analyze the validity of beneficial spot zoning.
Distinguishing a California Supreme Court case from 1946, the Court of Appeal first held that "the creation of an island of property with less restrictive zoning in the middle of properties with more restrictive zoning is spot zoning." Next, addressing the standard of review, the Court explained that although zoning is a quasi-legislative act, and therefore ordinarily upheld where a rational basis exists for the regulation, beneficial spot zoning will only be upheld if the record supports the conclusion that the spot zoning is "in the public interest." Finally, analyzing the evidence, the Court of Appeal found that the County's beneficial spot zoning was supported by the record.
While the Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the Superior Court and upheld the County's beneficial spot zoning, it declined to grant judgment in favor of the County, as the plaintiffs had asserted a California Environmental Quality Act challenge against the project which the Superior Court still needed to resolve.
Ben Rubin is chair of Nossaman’s Environment & Land Use Group. Ben assists developers, public agencies, landowners and corporate clients on a variety of complex land use and environmental matters. He counsels clients on matters ...
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