Orange Citizens Prevail: California Supreme Court Affirms the Power of the General Plan

The following is a press release from an organization unaffiliated with Voice of OC. The views expressed here are not those of Voice of OC.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                            

December 15, 2016


Theresa Sears



 Orange, CA – The California Supreme Court today issued its decision in Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation v. Superior Court. The unanimous decision reaffirms decades of well-established planning law and supports the right of voters to use the referendum process to challenge local land use decisions.

“Today’s decision supports the rights of Californians to have a say in local land use decisions, whether through the process of updating a city or county’s general plan or through the initiative and referendum process,” said attorney Robert “Perl” Perlmutter of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, who represented the Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation and Orange Park Association in the case. “The Supreme Court’s decision clarified key points for property owners, public officials, and the public, and should eliminate confusion moving forward if similar matters arise.”

The California Fourth District Court of Appeal issued a controversial decision in the case in July of 2013, which was the basis of the appeal that brought the case to the California Supreme Court. The appellate decision called into question a bedrock notion in state planning law: namely, that a city’s most recently-adopted General Plan serves as its local “constitution” and determines the permissible land uses for all property within the jurisdiction. The appellate decision also undermined the integrity of the referendum process by dismissing the results of a referendum that showed clear public intent to overturn a land use decision made by the Orange City Council.

The case stemmed from a proposal to develop one of the last remaining open spaces in Orange Park Acres, a rural community in the City of Orange. The developer applied for – and the City Council approved – a General Plan amendment to change the property’s long-standing open space designation to allow residential development. When the citizen group took the issue to the voters after qualifying the referendum for the ballot, Orange residents voted overwhelmingly to reject the Council’s approval.

In the meantime, the developer sued the City and the Orange Citizens community group, trying to force the referendum off the ballot. When that tactic failed, the developer argued in court that the referendum was irrelevant based on a 40-year old document it had “discovered” in the City’s files. This document, the developer claimed, showed that the City had decided to allow residential development on the property back in 1973, and that the City’s General Plan amendment was therefore unnecessary, rendering both the referendum and the City’s recently updated General Plan meaningless.

Despite the fact that the current General Plan stated that no residential development was allowed on the property in question, the developer argued that its project could nevertheless go forward. The City ultimately sided with the developer, and so did the Court of Appeal.

In reversing this decision, the Supreme Court explained that, given the plain language of the City’s General Plan, “no reasonable person could conclude that the Property could be developed without a general plan amendment changing its land use designation.” The Supreme Court concluded its opinion by emphasizing that city councils are prohibited from taking action “with intent to evade the effect of [a] referendum.”

“Californians are passionate about how land is used in their communities,” said Laura Thomas, president of the Orange Park Association. “Today’s decision reaffirms the rights of community members to have their say when developers try to flout an established general plan.”

Orange Citizens for Parks and Recreation is a broad-based bipartisan coalition with members from all parts of Orange. The group’s central goal is to protect recreational open space within the City.

Orange Park Association is a non-profit organization, formed in 1960 to protect the rural-equestrian area that was established in 1928 known as Orange Park Acres. Orange Park Association was a co-petitioner in the case.

Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP is a law firm specializing in land use, natural resource, environmental, and governmental law. Since 1980, the firm has provided public agencies and community groups with the highest quality legal representation, offering an array of litigation, counseling and planning services.


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