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In the first published opinion to consider a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA), the Third District upheld the City of Sacramento’s approval and streamlined CEQA review of a transit priority project that would build “significantly more housing” than otherwise allowed in the zoning code. The opinion strengthens charter city’sgeneral police powerto exceed density restrictions where “it is determined that the project provides a significant community benefit.” This will help cities seeking to densify their urban core beyond existing zoning and confirms that agencies can rely on consistency with regional plans to streamline CEQA review for transit priority projects.

The project at issue is a mixed-use retail/residential project located directly adjacent to a high-quality transit corridor and the City found that the project was consistent with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ (SACOG’s) Metropolitan Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy for 2035 (the MTP/SCS). The court also agreed that the project “would increase housing options near high quality transit, provide for increased ridership to support existing and new rail and bus services, and reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions” and determined these to be significant community benefits. (Opinion, p. 24)

In light of the ongoing struggle many municipalities face in trying to balance maintaining community character with the need to house California’s booming population, Sacramentans stands as significant new authority to support charter cities implementing flexible and novel planning solutions and regulations to foster transit oriented dense housing projects.


CEQA Challenges

As explained by the court, “[a]n SCEA is a relatively new method for conducting a streamlined environmental review for certain projects that assist the state in meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets” for projects that are “consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area.” (Opinion, p. 4, 21, quoting CEQA § 21155.2(b) and 21155(a))

Even though the 15-story building exceeded the City’s density restrictions for the site (3 times greater FAR and almost 3 times greater height), the court agreed that the project qualified for streamlined CEQA review because it was consistent with the SACOG MTP/SCS. The court noted that the project is located in an area that is “typically higher density and more mixed than surrounding land uses.”  The court rejected Petitioner’s argument that because “the [MTP/SCS] lacks specific density and building intensity standards, it could not “properly be utilized” by the City to justify reviewing the project in an SCEA.” (Opinion, p. 26) As the court explained, the SACOG MTP/SCS’s “purpose is to establish a regional pattern of development, not a site- specific zoning ordinance. It is ‘a forecasted development pattern for the region’ which, if implemented by SACOG’s member governments, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and light trucks that would otherwise result from new development.” (Opinion, p.27, citing Gov. Code § 65080(b)(2)(B)).

The court also rejected Petitioner’s claims that streamlined review was inappropriate because no prior environmental analysis has ever considered the cumulative impacts of development above the density allowed under the zoning code. The court held that “the project’s cumulative effects of building significantly more housing on this site than otherwise allowed in the zoning code were reviewed on a regional basis in the [MTP/SCS]’s environmental impact report.”

SCEAs offer significant advantages for qualifying projects that do not require a full EIR, as they are reviewed under the more deferential substantial evidence standard as opposed to the “fair argument” standard that would apply to mitigated negative declarations. Sacramentans confirms that agencies can rely on consistency with regional plans and environmental review of those plans to streamline CEQA review for transit priority projects. The project’s SCEA is available online here.


Planning and Zoning Challenges

The court also rejected Petitioner’s challenge to the City Planning and Design Commission’s approval of site plan and design review for the project, and in doing so upheld the City’s “novel” general plan policies allowing for increased density for certain projects.

Despite the project’s noncompliance with density restrictions, the City approved the project based on a broad General Plan Policy (LU1.1.10) that was included to balance the City’s desire to preserve existing neighborhoods and historic resources with the need for high quality infill development and housing. The policy allows for flexibility to approve specific projects that exceed density restrictions where “it is determined that the project provides a significant community benefit.” City staff detailed numerous benefits as the high level of design, its contribution to the City’s goal of building 10,000 new residential units in the downtown area by 2025, and that the project’s infill location would reduce dependency on personal vehicles and reduce carbon emissions.

The Petitioner argued that approving the project using Policy LU 1.1.10 was counter to the doctrine of zoning uniformity and violated both California statute and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and due process, and that the approval resulted from an unlawful delegation of legislative authority.

The court described doctrine of zoning uniformity as requiring that regulations “be uniform and equal in operation and effect, and provide those in similar circumstances, among whom no reasonable basis for distinction exists, with equal protection of law.” (Opinion, p. 7, quoting 8 McQuillin, Mun. Corp. (3d ed.) § 25.65)  Government Code Section 65852 requires that general law city ordinances must be “uniform for each class or kind of building or use of land throughout each zone,” but the court rejected Petitioner’s statutory argument, because as a charter city Sacramento was not subject to Section 65852. Lacking a basis in statute, Petitioner’s argued that the law of zoning uniformity is derived from the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the California Constitution, and from an implied zoning “contract” between citizens and their government. The court was unpersuaded.

Drawing on the Supreme Court’s seminal decision DeVita v. County of Napa(1995) 9 Cal.4th 763, the court describes that a California city derives its power to control land use from its own inherent police power. The court noted that while exercise of the police power must therefore be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose, that purpose is continually changing and evolving with the needs of the community and “there is nothing known to the law that keeps more in step with human progress than does the exercise of this power.” (Opinion, p. 9, quoting Consolidated Rock Products Co. v. City of Los Angeles(1962) 57 Cal.2d 515, 522.)

Based on the City’s broad authority under its general police power, the court held that equal protection does not require zoning uniformity where, as here, different treatment is related to a legitimate purpose of encouraging certain types of development. Likewise, the court rejected Petitioner’s delegation argument, holding that the City Council decided the fundamental policy issue when it adopted LU 1.1.10 as part of the General Plan, and that LU 1.1.10 provides enough direction to implement policy.