Design Guidelines Were Not A Zoning Ordinance Within The Meaning Of The Government Code And Did Not Render Zoning Code Inconsistent With The General Plan

In PR/JSM Rivara LLC v. Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 2 Dist., December 17, 2009), a California Court of Appeal rejected a developer’s argument that design guidelines adopted by a city redevelopment agency had effectively downzoned the redevelopment project area without complying with state law planning procedures. The court held that the design guidelines implemented the redevelopment plan, did not constitute a zoning code, and were consistent with the city’s general plan.


Private developers (“Developers”) of several properties located in the North Hollywood redevelopment project area (“Project Area”) petitioned for a writ of mandate to compel the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (“Agency”) and the City of Los Angeles (“City”) to set aside design guidelines adopted in 2007. The Project Area has been subject to a redevelopment plan adopted in 1979.

Section 629 of the redevelopment plan provides that, subject to city and state laws and regulations and the plan’s “limits, restrictions, and controls,” the Agency “is authorized to establish floor area ratios, heights of buildings, land coverage, setback requirements, design criteria, traffic circulation, traffic access, and other development and design controls necessary for proper development of both private and public areas within the Project Area.” Developers sought to overturn the design guidelines on the ground that the guidelines were facially invalid because they conflict with state and local laws. Developers claimed that “the design guidelines have effectively down-zoned the maximum allowable densities of the project area’s commercial core.” They claimed that “the design guidelines have effectively amended the zoning code without complying with the procedural and individualized notice requirements of the state Planning and Zoning Law, thereby rendering the zoning code inconsistent with the general plan.” The trial court dismissed Developer’s lawsuit.


The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court. The court began with a discussion of the purpose of the California Redevelopment Act, enacted in 1945 to address urban blight. The Act “provides that cities and counties can establish redevelopment agencies with the authority to acquire and sell real property, to impose land use and development controls, and to finance their operations by borrowing from federal or state governments.” In order to invoke redevelopment under California Community Redevelopment Law (“CRL”) there must be a determination that the area where the project is located is affected by blight. A redevelopment agency works with the private sector to eliminate blight. A redevelopment agency which adopts and implements a redevelopment plan under the CRL is carrying out state, not local, policy.

Developers asserted that the design guidelines at issue regulated matters within the purview of zoning laws such as the use of structures and lands within the Project Area and allowable density. They asserted the design guidelines were either a zoning ordinance or an amendment to a zoning ordinance, and City and Agency “were required to approve the guidelines in accordance with the procedures established in the state’s Planning and Zoning Law.” Agency and City asserted that because the design guidelines merely implement the redevelopment plan, the Government Code procedural requirements do not apply. The Court of Appeal agreed with City and Agency.

The court noted that there is a difference between adopting a redevelopment plan and implementing a redevelopment plan. When a city creates a redevelopment agency, it must approve a redevelopment plan for a blighted area by ordinance. Developers are correct that “the redevelopment agency must find that the redevelopment plan conforms to the general plan.” However, that determination must be made prior to the adoption of the redevelopment plan.

The provisions of the Government Code at issue “apply to the adoption of zoning laws through the legislative process conducted by any county or city.” However, once the ordinance adopting the redevelopment plan has been filed, the redevelopment agency is then “vested with the responsibility for carrying out the plan.” When a redevelopment agency carries out its responsibility its “acts are executive or administrative in nature, not legislative.” The court found that Developers did not show that either the Government Code or the Health and Safety Code require a redevelopment agency to give notice and conduct public hearings when it is performing its nonlegislative function of implementing the redevelopment plan.

The court also found that Developers did not demonstrate that the design guidelines were inconsistent with the general plan. Pursuant to Government Code section 65860, the test to determine whether a zoning ordinance is consistent with a general plan requires a determination of whether the city or county has officially adopted a general plan and whether the various land uses the zoning ordinance authorizes are “compatible with the objectives, policies, general land uses, and programs specified in the general plan.” The court found that at best, Developers had shown that “the provisions of the design guidelines and the general plan with respect to specific land uses are different.” They did not show how “the objectives, policies, general land uses or programs specified in the general plan . . . are affected by the design guidelines, much less attempt to explain how the design guidelines and the general plan are inconsistent.”

Developers also argued that the design guidelines conflict with California density bonus law because they “changed the criteria for awarding density bonuses,” “restricted the size of the density bonus,” and “applied the density bonus percentage to a different and lower base density.” Agency established at trial that it honored the obligation to provide developers the mandatory density bonus required by state law, and further that it had discretion to grant additional density to selected projects which met certain criteria. The appeals court found that because the city municipal code permitted Agency to impose additional development restrictions which reduce permitted density to less than allowed under the zoning code, the density bonus could be calculated based on the lower density permitted by Agency’s design standards. Also, the court found that Developer’s challenge to the density bonus plan based on the use of a lower-base density is time-barred because Agency’s decision to impose the relevant land use regulations was made when the redevelopment plan was amended in 1997.

The court also found that the design guidelines are authorized by state law. The CRL allows cities and counties to establish redevelopment agencies to address urban blight through the sale and purchase of real property, the imposition of development and land use controls, and borrowing money to finance their operations from federal or state governments. Section 629 of the redevelopment plan authorizes Agency to implement the plan by establishing development and design controls. The court found that Agency was authorized by the CRL and section 629 to develop and adopt the design guidelines.

Finally, the court found that Developers’ claim that Agency adopted the design guidelines in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) was found to be time-barred. The redevelopment plan’s final environmental impact report was certified in 1995 and a 2007 addendum was certified when the design guidelines were adopted. Developers failed to challenge the decision within the 30-day limitation period, and therefore, their CEQA claim was time-barred.


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