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Old East Davis Decision Preserves the Deference Granted to Cities in Interpreting Subjective Standards

February 01, 2022

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The Third District Court of Appeal recently reinforced the deference afforded to cities and counties in interpreting subjective design guidelines for residential development. (Old East Davis Neighborhood Association v. City of Davis (2021) WL 6426082.) In overruling the trial court, the Third District Court of Appeals upheld the Davis City Council’s approval of the “Trackside Project” and found that the City properly documented that the project was consistent with the City’s general plan and Core Area Specific Plan, despite subjective design guidelines related to height, setbacks and neighborhood scale.

Trackside is a proposed four-story mixed-use development that was initially conceived in 2016. The project is located in a designated “transition area” between two Davis neighborhoods, Downtown and Old East Davis. A neighborhood association challenged the City’s approval of the project on grounds that the project’s building heights and setbacks were inconsistent with the City’s design guidelines for the transition area, and for other reasons the project was not “in scale” with the surrounding neighborhood. The trial court agreed with the project opponents and determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the City’s approval of the project because it would exceed some of the height and setback standards in the City’s design guidelines, resulting in a project out of scale with the largely residential Old East Davis neighborhood.

On review, the Court of Appeal determined that the City’s design guidelines did not provide a formulistic or clear method for processing land use applications within the transition property. Rather, the transition policy was found to be “largely amorphous.” In this context, the Court of Appeal summarized the appropriate role of reviewing courts: it is not the court’s role to reweigh the factors that a city or county considers when deciding whether a project is consistent with its subjective design standards. In evaluating a City’s subjective standards, courts look to whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the agency’s findings. The trial court in Old East Davis correctly articulated the substantial evidence standard but then proceeded to disregard evidence relied on by the City: that the project would use a fourth floor setback to ensure neighborhood scale, and other factors to ensure consistency with the City’s design guidelines. The Court of Appeal further noted that, under the substantial evidence standard, the City could have disapproved the project if it had articulated reasons for doing so, and that with regard to subjective standards, “it is not the court's role to reweigh the factors unless no reasonable person could reach the same conclusion based on the evidence.”

The Trackside Project was originally conceptualized in 2016, and after six years of processing and litigation, the project can finally proceed with the development of 27 units, in close proximity to the City’s Amtrak station. The application of subjective standards in this project serves as a case study for recent efforts by the state to streamline the development process. In 2019, the state legislature adopted the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (SB 330), which limits a city’s discretion to disapprove projects that are consistent with objective standards. SB 330 flips the script by creating strong incentivizes for cities to adopt objective standards. Under SB 330, subjective standards cannot be used as a basis to deny a project, if the project is otherwise consistent with a city’s objective standards under its general plan, specific plan and zoning. SB 330 requires cities to make a significant investment in planning resources to ensure that appropriate objective standards are in place to guide development applications, and many cities are making progress to adopt these standards due to planning grants provided by the state. Overall, the goal of SB 330 is to limit subjective standards—such as general references to neighborhood “scale”—and replace those standards with objective, or formulaic criteria, and to provide expedited review of projects that fall within the range of proposed development intensity.

It remains to be seen whether traditional land use challenges emblemized by Old East Davis will become a relic of the past, as the legal standard of review for project approvals continues to evolve after SB 330. In any event, SB 330 will continue to serve as an important development tool, at least through 2030 when the law is currently set to expire. If you are a developer, or city or county representatives, and you have questions about the application of subjective standards under Old East Davis, or the shift to objective standards under SB 330 and SB 35, the Hanson Bridgett LLP land use team is ready to assist.

For more information, please contact:

Madison DiZinno

415-995-6492 Direct Phone
415-541-9366 Fax

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Robin Baral

916-491-3052 Direct Phone
916-491-3085 Fax

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