The City of Los Angeles's general plan framework has survived a second lawsuit filed by neighborhood activists, who won an earlier round against the city. In the latest round of litigation, the Second District Court of Appeal rejected arguments that the city had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and had adopted an internally inconsistent general plan.

The court found that many of the issues raised by neighborhood groups had been - or should have been - settled during the earlier litigation, so the court refused to consider them.

The fight over the Los Angeles general plan is now a decade old. In early 1995, the city published a proposed general plan framework and draft environmental impact report. The general plan framework was intended to guide amendments to the three dozen community plans that compose the city's general plan. The framework addressed land use, housing, circulation and other aspects of the general plan. The city also produced a Transportation Improvement Mitigation Plan (TIMP), as the framework required. The transportation plan called for $12 billion worth of improvements over 20 years.

In December 1996, the city adopted a revised framework and certified an environmental impact report, both of which relied heavily on the transportation plan.

The politically powerful Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations sued, and eventually the Second District ruled that the city had made findings regarding traffic mitigation that were not supported because the city admitted it could not fund the transportation plan. (Federation of Hillside & Canyon Associations v. City of Los Angeles, 83 Cal.App. 4th 1252; see CP&DR Legal Digest, November 2000).

One year after the appellate court's decision, the city readopted the general plan framework, as well as new CEQA findings and, because not all impacts could be fully mitigated, a revised statement of overriding considerations. By this time, the city had determined that it could fund its share of the TIMP. The city also found that funding from county, state and federal sources was likely but not guaranteed. Because there was no guarantee, the CEQA finding stated that transportation mitigation measures were infeasible.

The federation and a group called Coalition Against the Pipeline sued again. Among other things, they argued that the lack of certainty regarding transportation infrastructure rendered the land use and circulation elements inconsistent and “noncorrelative.” The opponents also contended that the city should have revised and recirculated the EIR, that the city's findings on air quality, water resources, wastewater, solid waste, open space and utilities were faulty, and that the 1990 census data used by the city was outdated. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Yaffe ruled for the city. The neighborhood groups appealed, but the same three-judge panel of the Second District, Division Three, that decided the 2000 case upheld Judge Yaffe.

In making their argument regarding general plan inconsistency, the neighborhood groups pointed to Concerned Citizens of Calaveras County v. Board of Supervisors, (1985) 166 Cal.App. 3d 90. In that case, the court found an inconsistency because the county's land use element allowed for unlimited growth while the circulation element made no provisions for improvements to state highways, or for limiting growth if highway improvements were inadequate. Based on that ruling, the Los Angeles neighborhood groups contended that the city either had to limit population growth or provide measures to manage traffic if the TIMP were not fully funded. The court disagreed.

“Contrary to petitioners' argument, the internal consistency and correlation requirements do not require a city or county to limit population growth or provide traffic mitigation measures to ensure that its transportation infrastructure can accommodate future population growth,” Justice Walter Croskey wrote for the court. “The Planning and Zoning Law (Government Code § 65000 et seq.) does not require a city or county to avoid adverse impacts on transportation. Rather, the city has broad discretion to weigh and balance competing interests in formulating development policies, and a court cannot review the wisdom of those decisions under the guise of reviewing a general plan's internal consistency and correlation.”

Additionally, the court noted, the city's finding that the TIMP is infeasible “is not a definitive statement that the funds will not be available.” Besides, the finding is not part of the general plan.

As for EIR revisions, the neighborhood groups argued that the transportation impact findings amounted to an amendment to the general plan framework, which should have been subject to a new environmental review. But the court ruled that the city did not amend the framework and concluded “that the city's finding that the mitigation measures are infeasible does not result in either new significant environmental effects or a substantial increase in the severity of environmental effects identified in the EIR and does not otherwise trigger the need for a subsequent EIR or a supplement to the EIR.”

The court further ruled that the statement of overriding considerations was proper and that impacts to wastewater, solid waste, open space and utilities could not be challenged because they should have been contested during the first round of litigation. Impacts to water resources were unsuccessfully contested during the earlier lawsuit, the court pointed out.

“We rejected petitioners' challenge to the EIR in the prior appeal and stated that the city need not revise the EIR unless it substantially changed the project, which it did not do,” Croskey wrote.

The Case:
Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations v. City of Los Angeles, No. B166819, 05 C.D.O.S. 1438, 2005 DJDAR 1925. Filed November 10, 2004. Ordered published by the California Supreme Court on February 16, 2005.
The Lawyers:
For the federation: Lawrence Teeter, (213) 387-4512.
For the city: Susan Pfann, assistant city attorney, (213) 485-6393.