• Land Use Attorney Capitola

CASE UPDATE: A City’s General Plan Amendment Eliminating Minimum Residential Density Requirements Is Not Exempt From CEQA.

In People for Proper Planning v. City of Palm Springs (2016), 2016 WL 3005719, an affordable housing advocacy group filed a lawsuit challenging City of Palm Springs’s  adoption of a general plan amendment (GPA) removing minimum density requirements for each residential development.  The trial court ruled that the GPA was exempt from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but the court of appeal reversed on this issue.

The lawsuit alleged that the GPA was “inconsistent with the General Plan and violates Government Code [section] 65863, which prohibits cities and counties from reducing residential densities or allowing residential development of any parcel at lower residential densities absent certain findings not made here,” and that the City violated CEQA by failing to conduct any environmental review whatsoever.

The City argued that the GPA was categorically exempt from CEQA under the “class 5 exemption”, which applies to projects that “consist [ ] of 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, including but not limited to: (a) Minor lot line adjustments, side yard, and set back variances not resulting in the creation of any new parcel; (b) Issuance of minor encroachment permits; (c) Reversion to acreage in accordance with the Subdivision Map Act.  See CEQA Guidelines § 15305.  The City found that the GPA was exempt because its “proposed change reflects past and current practice and retains existing density maximum standards.”  The City maintained that the GPA would not result in any changes in land use or density because the City’s “past and current practices” were to not enforce minimum density standards, because the change retained maximum density standards, and thus, the GPA would not result in any significant change to current conditions, i.e. the GPA would not change the  current environmental “baseline”.

The trial court agreed with this rationale and denied plaintiff’s petition, but the court of appeal reversed.  In pertinent part, it held as follows:

“While we agree that the physical environmental conditions in the vicinity of the project normally constitute what is known as the baseline … we do not agree that such is the case here. Once the City adopted the General Plan in 2007, the General Plan itself provided the baseline for future projects…Here, the City is required to accommodate its share of the regional housing needs. The 2007 EIR identified closed density ranges that met this requirement. By eliminating the minimum density, the Amendment will impact the availability of high density, low and moderate income housing because high density designated parcels may now be considered for low-density development. Thus, the Amendment lowers the average density for residential areas and changes the land use regulation to the detriment of every parcel designated as residential by the General Plan, potentially causing significant cumulative impacts on the City’s stock of high density, low and moderate income housing. Moreover, permitting 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….”

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