On July 18, 2019, in Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2019), the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court decision denying a “vertical” consistency challenge filed by “Sacramentans for Fair Planning” after the City of Sacramento approved a15-story “high-rise” condominium building—known as the “Yamanee” project—in the City’s Midtown area.  The plaintiff group also challenged the City’s streamlined CEQA review of the project under a sustainable communities environmental assessment (“SCEA”).  My partner, Art Coon, analyzed those issues in the CEQA Developments blog.

The project’s floor-area-ratio of 9.22 greatly exceeds the general plan’s applicable FAR of 0.3-3.0 and height recommendation of two to six stories.  Similarly, the project’s overall height of 178 feet, seven inches also greatly exceeds the zoning ordinance’s maximum height of 65 feet.  Despite those quantitative inconsistencies, the City ultimately approved the building under a general plan policy (LU 1.1.10) allowing more intense development than otherwise allowed if the project provides a “significant community benefit.”  Relying on that policy, the City found that the project would provide numerous significant community benefits, including high quality design, a contribution to the City’s goal of building 10,000 new residential units in the downtown area by 2025, and high density in an infill location that reduces dependency on personal vehicles and reduces carbon emissions.

The plaintiff group opposing the project argued that the City’s reliance on LU 1.1.10 violates the zoning uniformity doctrine—requiring zoning ordinances to be uniform for each kind of building throughout a zoning district—that applies to general law cities via Government Code section 65852.  The group also argued that the zoning uniformity doctrine is derived from the equal protection and due process clauses of the federal and state constitutions and from a zoning “contract” implied in law between the citizens and government that would even apply to charter cities such as Sacramento.  Under this “contract,” landowners forego the right to use their land as they wish in return for assurance that the use of neighboring property will be similarly restricted.  And the group argued that the policy was an unlawful delegation of legislative authority without sufficient standards to govern its use.

The Court of Appeal easily dispensed with the plaintiff group’s statutory challenge because Government Code section 65803 provides that the “zoning regulations” chapter of the Planning and Zoning Law does not apply to charter cities.  After an overview of numerous well-settled principles regarding the police power, the Court also readily disposed of the group’s constitutional challenge.  The Court held that the guarantees of equal protection and due process do not impose a zoning uniformity doctrine or zoning “contract.”  The Court also held that LU 1.1.10 is rationally related to a legitimate public interest in providing “high quality infill development” that provides a “significant community benefit” the general plan and zoning ordinance may not have otherwise allowed.  The Court reasoned that “[z]oning may be based on theories of mutual benefit and reciprocity, but there is no constitutional doctrine or common law social contract in California that compels zoning legislation and land use permits to meet a higher standard than the rationality and reasonableness required by the [equal protection and due process clauses].”

The Court also held that LU 1.1.10 is not an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority, which occurs only when a legislative body (1) leaves the resolution of fundamental policy issues to others or (2) fails to provide adequate direction for the implementation of that policy.  As to the former, the City Council decided that policy issue when it adopted LU 1.1.10.  And as to the latter, LU 1.1.10 provides enough direction to implement the policy given that a general welfare standard “is a sufficient guideline to enable an agency to act constitutionally.”

The bottom line, according to the Court, is that “[t]he City’s approach may be novel, but it is not unconstitutional.”

Sacramentans for Fair Planning is a major new land use case that highlights a key distinction between charter cities and general law cities when it comes to regulating and approving development projects.  Although general law cities have broad authority to make land use determinations approving projects that will be given deference by the courts, charter cities with “novel” community benefit policies like Sacramento’s have what could be considered near unfettered discretion to approve projects that could objectively be considered inconsistent with otherwise applicable land use regulations.  In light of California’s ongoing and seemingly intractable housing crisis, Sacramentans for Fair Planning provides helpful new authority for cities that desire to be part of the solution.  The decision also suggests the need to re-think the value of the uniformity doctrine in general law cities, at least with respect to the regulation of housing.


Questions? Please contact Bryan W. Wenter, AICP of Miller Starr Regalia.

For more than 50 years, Miller Starr Regalia has served as one of California’s leading real estate law firms. Miller Starr Regalia has expertise in all types of real property matters, including full-service litigation and dispute resolution, transactions, acquisitions, dispositions, leasing, financing, common interest development, construction, management, eminent domain and inverse condemnation, exactions, title insurance, environmental law, and land use. Miller Starr Regalia attorneys also write Miller & Starr, California Real Estate 4th, a 12-volume treatise on California real estate law. “The Book” is the most widely used and judicially recognized real estate treatise in California and is cited by practicing attorneys and courts throughout the state. For more information, visit www.msrlegal.com.