There is no question in California land use law that development projects need not comply with every goal or policy in a community’s general plan. While a city’s or county’s land use decisions must be consistent with the goals and policies in its general plan, the courts have consistently held that a finding of general plan consistency requires only that a project be “compatible with,” and “not frustrate,” the goals and policies of the applicable general plan. State law does not require precise conformity of a proposed project with the land use designation for a particular site or an exact match between the project and the general plan. Instead, development projects must simply be in agreement or harmony with the terms of the general plan.
These fundamental principles are easily understood when dealing with qualitative general plan policies such as those addressing community character or those requiring open space preservation and resource conservation. But general plan consistency principles are sometimes misapplied when the issue is whether a given project is consistent with quantitative general plan provisions, such as those dealing with a project’s size, if a proposed project would exceed such development standards.
On July 1, 2016, the Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District partially published an important case—Naraghi Lakes Neighborhood Preservation Association v. City of Modesto, __ Cal.App.4th __ (2016) (Case No. F071768)—addressing general plan consistency regarding quantitative development standards. The case arose out of Modesto’s approval of a new approximately 170,000 square foot shopping center on approximately 18 acres of vacant land, with a grocery store serving as the anchor tenant. The project required a general plan amendment to redesignate the project site from mixed-use and residential to commercial.
The project area was within an area covered by the City’s “neighborhood plan prototype” general plan policies, which were designed to provide a blueprint for development of future residential neighborhoods. One of the applicable policies states that “A 7-9 acre neighborhood shopping center, containing 60,000 to 100,000 square feet of gross leasable space, should be located in each neighborhood.” The same provision also states that the shopping center should be located at the intersection of two arterial streets.
The City found that the project was consistent with the general plan because it provided for a neighborhood shopping center at the intersection of arterial streets. Although the approved center was larger than the general plan description for neighborhood shopping centers, the City interpreted the general plan size description as a provision intended to provide guidance on the orderly development of neighborhoods rather than to impose mandatory limitations on the size of a shopping center.
The project opponent disagreed with the City’s flexible interpretation and alleged that the City should treat all of the general plan’s policies and descriptions as mandatory development standards. The project opponent was particularly focused on the fact that the project was double the general plan’s stated acreage amount and 70,000 square feet above its total leasable space.
The City contended that the general plan’s acreage and leasable square footage limitations were not meant as rigid development mandates but rather were flexible descriptions to provide a basic model or pattern to guide the future development of neighborhoods. While the project was indeed larger than the general plan depicts, it was essentially compatible with the plan’s main goal of providing a needed neighborhood shopping center at the intersection of two arterial streets.
The court of appeal recognized that judicial review of consistency findings is “highly deferential” to the local agency, which must be allowed to weigh and balance the general plan’s policies when applying them. The local agency has broad discretion to construe the general plan’s policies in light of the plan’s purposes. Courts will uphold a local agency’s decision so long as its general plan consistency finding is reasonable based on the evidence in the record. See, e.g., Cal. Native Plant Society v. City of Rancho Cordova, 172 Cal.App.4th 603, 637 (2009).
Considering the facts in Naraghi Lakes, the court of appeal was particularly persuaded by the general plan’s language, which included terms such as “prototype” and “model,” indicating that the relevant policies were intended to provide a guiding pattern or model for future development of neighborhoods. The general plan also used the word “should” in the majority of those policies, rather than the mandatory word “shall,” which the court determined provides a reasonable basis for the City’s flexible interpretation of the acreage and square footage provisions. The court thus held that the City did not abuse its discretion because the general plan’s plain language was “reasonably consistent” with the City’s consistency determination.
The City’s history of interpreting the general plan flexibly also influenced the court of appeal. Evidence in the record showed that the City had approved several shopping centers that exceeded the prototype in either acreage, square footage, or both.
Naraghi Lakes provides helpful guidance regarding general plan consistency determinations, particularly when considering whether to treat a given policy as a mandatory development standard. The backdrop to that analysis remains the same, however, regardless of whether the policy in question is qualitative or quantitative. Courts will give great deference to an agency’s determination that a project is consistent with its own general plan, even when a given policy might be characterized as a quantitative development standard. An agency’s general plan consistency determination may only be reversed if it is based upon evidence from which no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion.