CONSISTENCY WITH THE GENERAL PLAN IS KEY WITH RESPECT TO ANY LOCAL DECISION AFFECTING LAND USE AND DEVELOPMENT

In Spring Valley Lake Association v. City of Victorville (2016) 248 Cal.App.4th 91, the court emphasized the importance of being consistent with the general plan in planning and zoning decisions affecting land use and development in holding that the Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) failed to support its conclusion that the development project complied with the general plan.  In Spring Valley, the project at issue consisted of 214,596 square feet of commercial retail use on approximately 23.72 acres of land, which was vacant and undeveloped.   Among the project’s commercial retail uses was a Walmart store of approximately 184,946 square feet.

Spring Valley Lake Association (“the Association”) brought an action against the City and Wal-Mart for writ relief challenging the EIR for the shopping center construction project under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).  The lower court granted the petition in part and both parties appealed.

The Spring Valley court noted that a project is consistent with the general plan if considering all its aspects, it will further the objectives and policies of the general plan and not obstruct their attainment.  However, the court cautioned that it is not the role of the court to micromanage the City’s development decisions; as long as the City reasonably could have made a determination of consistency, the City’s decision must be upheld, regardless of whether we would have made that determination in the first instance.

That being said, the court held that while the City effectively found that there was no extent to which it would be feasible as part of the general plan to require the project to generate electricity on-site, whether by solar or other means, there was no evidence in the record to support such as finding.  The court explained that the EIR simply stated that there were many factors to be considered in determining the feasibility of solar power generation.  The EIR did not state what those factors might be or discuss how they fare in this particular circumstance as to any portion of the project and did not discuss the feasibility of other alternatives for on-site electricity generation, such as wind power.  The court found that the general plan unequivocally required all new commercial or industrial projects to generate electricity on-site to the maximum extent feasible and that there was not substantial evidence to the support the City’s general plan consistency finding.

The court also found that the EIR was conflicting with respect to compliance with the plan’s increased energy efficiency objective – one report stating 14 percent aggregate benefit in energy efficiencies beyond the applicable standards versus another report which stated 10 percent aggregate efficiencies.  Consequently, the court found that there was not substantial evidence to support the City’s determination the project would have no significant air quality impacts from greenhouse emissions.

On its cross-appeal, the Association contended that the City did not make all of the findings enumerated in Government Code section 66474 before approving the project’s parcel map.  The court agreed.  The court found that the City did not consider all of the matters outlined in Section 66474.[1]  The court also held that revisions of the biological resources and hydrology and water quality impacts analysis by the City before certifying the final EIR constituted “new information” (the EIR is changed in a way that deprives the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment upon the changes – Government Code sections 21104, 21153) requiring recirculation of the EIR before final approval.

The thrust of the Spring Valley decision is that the CEQA demands that final approval of the EIR for a development project be supported by detailed and comprehensive analysis that is in harmony with the policies stated in the general plan for the project.  Also, the record must reflect that the city considered all of the factors outlined in Section 66474 before making any final decisions on the project.  Finally, the developer and city must recognize that if any significant revisions are made to the EIR after a public meeting on the project, the EIR must be recirculated before the EIR is certified.

[1] Section 6674 enumerates seven factors all of which must be considered by the City in approving the project’s parcel map including whether the proposed map is consistent with applicable general and specific plans as specified in Section 65451.

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