People for Proper Planning v. City of Palm Springs (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 640 (partially published)

Why It Matters: The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court decision finding that a general plan amendment eliminating minimum density requirements for all residential developments in a municipality was not exempt from CEQA.

Facts: Under its General Plan, the City of Palm Springs designated minimum and maximum densities for residential units in each land use category. In certain circumstances, the General Plan expressly provided applicable minimum density requirements. In others, the General Plan did not set any minimum density. According to the General Plan, the density requirements represented the minimum "anticipated" amount of density. Density, however, could not exceed the General Plan requirements.

In 2013, the City approved a General Plan amendment (Amendment) eliminating all minimum density requirements across residential land use categories. According to the resolution implementing the Amendment, the change was consistent with "past and current practice . . . to consider only the maximum density allowed within each land use category." The City concluded the Amendment was exempt from CEQA under a Class 5 categorical exemption for "minor alterations in land use limitations in areas with an average slope of less than 20%, which do not result in any changes in land use or density . . . ."

A citizens group, People for Proper Planning (PFPP), filed a legal challenge to the City's determination that its action was exempt from CEQA. PFPP also asked the court to set aside the Amendment as being inconsistent with the General Plan and state law restricting cities from reducing residential densities or allowing residential development of any parcel at lower residential densities.

The Decision: The court's analysis began with whether the Class 5 categorical exemption applied. The City argued that since the proposed change reflected past and current practice, there was no change to existing density standards. However, the court observed, "[b]ecause the Amendment does not retain existing density minimum standards on its face, it apparently results in a change to land density." The court reasoned that, "[w]hile the Amendment does not reduce the maximum allowable density for residential areas, its elimination of the minimum allowable density changes the density range, effecting a lower average density for residential areas . . . ." The court concluded that the City erred in relying on the Class 5 exemption.

Under CEQA, even if a categorical exemption might be applicable, before relying on that exemption, the agency must determine that the proposed project does not fall within one of CEQA's "exceptions" to use of an exemption. In this case, the court also considered whether—assuming that the City could rely on the categorical exemption—the Amendment fell within the "unusual circumstances" or "cumulative impact" exceptions to an agency's use of an exemption. PFPP presented "sufficient evidence" to support a fair argument that the Amendment would result in a "significant impact" on the environment due to its "across-the-board change in land use regulation." With somewhat limited analysis, the court found that the Amendment was "capable of causing significant cumulative impacts on the City's stock of high-density, low and moderate income housing due to its elimination of the minimum density allowances." The court also determined that PFPP presented "sufficient evidence" to support a fair argument that the Amendment would result in a "significant impact" on the environment due to its "across-the-board change in land use regulation." And thus, the court held that use of the categorical exemption was improper.

In addition, the court held that "[p]ermitting low-density residential development in areas previously set aside for high-density projects will necessarily reduce the range of housing types, prices and opportunities available in the City to the frustration of the General Plan's goal of facilitating a broad range of housing types." Notably, the City argued that its practice of interpreting the General Plan as not mandating minimum densities meant that the Amendment did not change the existing environmental baseline. However, the court found that "[o]nce the City adopted the General Plan in 2007, the General Plan itself provided the baseline for future projects," not the City's contrary practice.

Practice Pointers:

  • Amendments to the General Plan impacting a broad range of land use regulations will be scrutinized with regard to the availability of CEQA exemptions.
  • The specific provisions of a General Plan will take precedence over contrary practices, even if long-standing, in determining an environmental baseline for CEQA purposes.