Douglas P. Carstens on Local General Plans in California

Douglas P. Carstens on Local General Plans in California

Recent efforts by the California Legislature to make changes to land use requirements to promote priorities such as development of renewable energy sources have placed new emphasis on local general plans. In this Analysis, Douglas P. Carstens delineates the relevant factors when courts will interpret general plans as a matter of law, or when courts are more deferential in the interpretations, looking for a rational basis for agency interpretations of their plans. He writes:

[A]re local general plans up to the challenge of the new reliance being placed upon them by regional and statewide planning processes? Many general plans are out of date since resource-strapped cities and counties have chosen to spend their scarce budgets on priorities other than long range planning. General plan changes have often been driven by pressure from individual developers for amendments rather than comprehensive changes as general plans were intended. As more emphasis on general plans can be expected in the future, and more changes to them examined, it is helpful to assess the state of general plan law for what has worked and what has not. As jurisdictions reform or modernize their general plans, lessons learned from courts examining general plan issues will need to be heeded to ensure changes to general plans accomplish the policy goals that are intended by the adopting agencies.

     General plans are the constitution for future growth, atop the land use hierarchy. They have the force of law, but in many ways are not written as forcefully as most laws are, so they have been interpreted in various ways by the courts. Some courts have been very deferential to public agency interpretations of their general plans. Others have been more rigorous in their interpretation of the plain language of the plans. This article attempts to delineate the relevant factors when courts will interpret general plans as a matter of law as they would ordinances, regulations, and other enactments, or when courts are more deferential in the interpretations, essentially just looking for a rational basis for agency interpretations of their general plans.

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C. Court Treatment of General Plans

     General Plans have been frequently interpreted in the courts in response to claims of inconsistency of proposed projects with the plans, but how those interpretations have turned out has varied as widely as general plans themselves vary. As public agencies update or amend their general plans to ensure they reflect the modern policy choices of the adopting agencies, it is worth noting some common themes that have emerged in the courts. Where policies are fundamental, specific, and mandatory, courts have been strict in requiring the implementation of the policies. Where policies are vague or permissive, courts have tended to defer to the adopting agency's interpretation of the plan. Therefore, if policies are meant to be enforceable when implemented and predictable when applied, jurisdictions should review their general plans to ensure that those policies are specific and mandatory.

1. Some Courts Have Required Consistency With Every Single Policy of a General Plan

     One set of cases has found general plans that have specific, mandatory policies have served to effectively guide the exercise of public agency power to approve development. Cases that involve general plan policies that are fundamental, mandatory, and clear frequently come to the same conclusion when the policy is violated.

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