The clamp on local governments in California grows only tighter and tighter.
The number and detail of state mandates continues to increase. The ability to raise revenue continues to decrease. The amount of litigation never decreases. Redevelopment is in doubt. Keeping a city or county out of financial or legal trouble seems to get more difficult every year.
Those were the implicit – and sometimes explicit – messages during the UCLA Extension Land Use Law and Planning Conference in Los Angeles last Friday. As always at the conference, expert practitioners and analysts reviewed last year's lawmaking, rulemaking and courtroom activity, and speculated about the year ahead. It was difficult to detect many rays of light for cities or counties.
An environmental impact report for a 560-housing unit specific plan in the Riverside County city of Beaumont has been upheld by the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The court approved the city's use of a baseline for examining water usage that was favorable to the developer, accepted the city's determination that loss of farmland could not be mitigated, and upheld the city's statement of overriding consideration for approving a project with significant environmental impacts.
Divine purposes do not give developers a free pass to circumvent local zoning regulations.
The Second District Court of Appeal has ruled that Los Angeles County was entitled to a court order that prohibited a church from operating a school without a required conditional user permit.
The Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Church owns two parcels zoned R-1 (single-family residential) in the San Gabriel Valley. In May 2008, the church filed an application for a conditional use permit to operate an 800-student, K-12 school on the property. Four months later, the county received complaints that the school was operating in advance of the issuance of the conditional use permit and without California Environmental Quality Act review.
For all of the Legislature's fretting this year, the consensus in Sacramento is that among the state's overwhelming crises, land use ranked as a low priority this past legislative session. The legislative session that ended Aug. 30 included relatively few land use bills and, of those, they were of relatively minor import.
I was trying to figure out a way to summarize the 2009-2010 session of the California Legislature when I found a summary upon which I could not improve.
In its September 3 edition of "Framing the Issues," the affordable housing advocacy group California Housing Law Project nailed the situation. Under the headline "No Budget … No Money … No Legacy … Failed Policy," was this:
A California Environmental Quality Act amendment that could ease Walmart's entry into new markets appears to be speeding toward approval in the state Legislature.
Assembly Bill 1581 (Torres) would exempt from CEQA review the alteration of a vacant retail structure of up to 120,000 square feet so long as the use is consistent with the applicable general plan and meets certain energy and water efficiency thresholds. The exemption would sunset on January 1, 2014.
The environmental impact report for a proposed human waste composting facility in San Bernardino County has been rejected by the Fourth District Court of Appeal for failure to examine an alternative facility that would be enclosed rather than open-air, as proposed. In addition, the court ruled the county should have completed a water supply assessment for the project.
Is this the year that CEQA goes down in a flaming pile of EIRs and writs? The year when unwashed masses of tree huggers watch helplessly as greedy developers pave paradise to put up parking lots? Probably not, but there is no doubt the California Environmental Quality Act is under attack these days.
Legislation to weaken CEQA is pending in Sacramento, and a ballot measure that would prohibit citizen lawsuits based on CEQA has received clearance for signatures. The CEQA haters argue that the law is stifling California's economy. (You can swap "AB 32" or "SB 375" into that sentence if you want, but that's for another article.)