On October 1, 2018, in Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment v. City of Los Angeles, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2018) (Case No. B285458), the Second District Court of Appeal denied an appeal challenging the City of Los Angeles’ approval of the Martin Expo Town Center, an 800,000 square foot mixed-use project on a five-acre site in West Los Angeles. The project includes the demolition of Martin Cadillac, along with the construction of 516 residential units in a seven story building, 99,000 of ground floor retail space, and 200,000 square feet of office floor area in a ten story building.

A self-styled citizens group known as Westsiders Opposed to Overdevelopment challenged a trial court decision denying its writ petition contending: (1) the City charter bars the amendment of the general plan for a single project site; (2) the charter bars the City from allowing a member of the public to initiate an amendment; (3) the City Council failed to make required findings when it amended the general plan; and (4) the amendment constituted impermissible spot zoning.

The relevant City of Los Angeles Charter provisions provide that that the City may amend the general plan “by geographic area” when the “area involved has significant social, economic or physical identity” and that amendments may be “proposed by” the Council, the City Planning Commission, or the Director of Planning.

Standard of Review

Westsiders argued that its challenge should be reviewed under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5—to review a final adjudicative action of the City Council—because the general plan amendment applied only to the developer’s property and not to the “entire community.” But Westsiders cited only to cases that predated Government Code section 65301.5, which since 1980 has provided that the adoption of or amendment to a city’s general plan is a legislative act to be reviewed under Code of Civil Procedure section 1085. The Court of Appeal thus held that a general plan amendment is reviewable under section 1085, as a legislative act.

Given that the adoption or amendment of a general plan is categorically a legislative act, the Court cited to several basic principles in lawsuits challenging general plan adoption or amendment, including:

  • A legislative act is presumed valid and a city need not make explicit findings to support its action.
  • A court cannot inquire into the wisdom of a legislative act or review the merits of a local government’s policy decisions.
  • Judicial review of a legislative act under section 1085 is limited to determining whether the public agency’s action was arbitrary, capricious, entirely without evidentiary support, or procedurally unfair.

General Plan Amendment by Geographic Area

The City Council found that the project site was a “geographic area” with a “unique physical and economic identity.” The Council also found that the site is one of the largest underutilized sites in the area and that the project would provide the first major transit-oriented development in West Los Angeles.

Westsiders challenged the City Council’s findings, arguing that the general plan could not be amended for a “single project or single parcel” because such a small piece of land could not qualify as a “geographic area” with “significant social, economic or physical identity.” According to Westsiders (1) the plain meaning of “geographic area” is a “region,” and a single lot or small lot is not a region, and (2) a single lot cannot qualify as having a “significant social, economic, or physical identity” within the meaning of the charter—“a car dealership in West Los Angeles is simply not that special.”

Citing to rules of statutory interpretation applicable to city charters, including that a charter city has all power over municipal affairs subject only to the “clear and explicit limitations and restrictions contained in the charter” and that courts may not construe a charter to restrict municipal power without a clear mandate in the charter itself, the Court rejected Westsiders’ claims and held that there are no “clear and explicit limitations [or] restrictions” in the charter regarding the size of the geographic area that may be the subject of a general plan amendment. The Court also held that there are no categorical limitations in the charter for car dealerships in certain parts of the City or for any other kind of development.

Initiation of General Plan Amendments

Westsiders argued that the City effectively allowed the developer to “initiate” the amendment, contrary to the charter, which only allows “[t]he Council, the City Planning Commission or the Director of Planning [to] propose amendments to the General Plan.” Again citing to principles of city charter interpretation, the Court rejected Westsiders’ argument, holding that the charter contains no “clear and explicit limitations [or] restrictions” regarding who may request an amendment. The Court thus declined to read the term “initiation” in the title of the charter provision or “propose” in the body of the section “as meaning that the seed for any proposed amendment must sprout in the heads of City officials without any input from private citizens. Any other result would stifle public participation in public land use decision-making.”

Findings

Without citing any authority, Westsiders argued that the City never made the required Topanga findings, applicable under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 to “bridge the analytic gap between the raw evidence and the ultimate decision or order,” that the lot constituted a “geographic area” or that “the lot has a significant economic or physical identity.” Instead, Westsiders cited to 8,000 pages in the administrative record and argued—in one sentence—that the City’s finding that the project site has a “unique economic and physical identity” is not supported by the evidence.

The Court held that the City is not required to make explicit findings to support a general plan amendment because legislative acts need not be accompanied by findings. In addition, the Court reasoned that although the City used the word “unique” instead of “significant” in discussing the site’s “economic and physical identity,” the City clearly found the proposed project possessed the appropriate significant economic and physical characteristics. Moreover, the Court would not address this argument further because it was not supported by any argument or specific citation to the record.

Spot Zoning

Westsiders claimed the general plan amendment resulted in unlawful spot zoning because the project is allegedly not the result of a substantial public need. The Court held that Westsiders waived its spot zoning argument, however, because the group failed to raise the issue in the trial court.

We note that even if Westsiders had properly preserved this argument it also would likely have failed given that a general plan amendment is not a zoning amendment and spot zoning is not illegal if “a rational reason in the public benefit exists for such a classification.” See, e.g., Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, 222 Cal.App.4th 1302, 1314 (2014).