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California Court of Appeal Holds Claim Time Barred under Planning and Zoning Law Despite Planning Commission’s Failure to Make Decision

The California Court of Appeal for the Second Judicial District has held that appellant’s claim was barred by the 90-day statute of limitations set forth in Planning and Zoning Law (Gov. Code, § 65000 et seq.) even though the planning commission never made a decision on appeal. [1305 Ingraham, LLC. v. City of Los Angeles,___Cal.App.5th___, Case No. B287327 (2nd Dist. Mar. 12, 2019).]

Factual and Procedural History

On June 15, 2016, the City of Los Angeles (City) issued a “Specific Plan Compliance Review Density Bonus & Affordable Housing Incentives” for a mixed-use affordable housing project in downtown Los Angeles. Appellant, a nearby property owner, appealed the determination to the City planning commission. A hearing was set for July 28, 2016, but no hearing was ever held. The project was considered approved on August 1, and the City filed a notice of determination on August 8, 2016. Nine months later, appellant filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Superior Court alleging that the city failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Real party in interest demurred on the basis that appellant’s claim was time-barred by CEQA’s 30-day limitations period in Public Resources Code § 21167.

Appellant subsequently filed an amended petition abandoning the CEQA claim in favor of claiming a violation of due process—claiming it was entitled to a hearing under the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC). The City and real party demurred again arguing the 90-day limitations period for Planning and Zoning Law claims barred appellant’s amended petition. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend, and this appeal followed.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

Government Code § 65009, subdivision (c)(1) sets forth a 90-day statute of limitations to challenge a legislative body’s decision under Planning and Zoning Law. At dispute was whether a “decision” triggering the limitations period existed.

Relying on a specific section of the LAMC, which provides that prior to deciding an appeal the planning commission shall hold a hearing, appellant asserted that a hearing is a prerequisite to any decision. Because there had been no hearing, appellant argued the required “decision” had not been made. The Court of Appeal disagreed looking to a later provision in the LAMC, which specified that if the planning commission failed to act in the time allowed, the planning director’s decision becomes final. Here, because the planning commission failed to render its own written decision—the planning director’s decision became final and the statute of limitations began running 15 days after the scheduled July 28, 2016 hearing date.

The court explained that such an interpretation did not lead to “absurd results” as argued by appellant. The court found that the LAMC provisions do not condone or authorize inaction, but instead act as a “backstop” providing interested parties with an actionable decision in the event of a procedural lapse by the decision-making body.

Appellant also argued that the LAMC must be interpreted to require an appeal be deemed denied only if the planning commission fails to act after it has heard the appeal. The court rejected this argument—holding that the purpose of the local code section, which, in part, is “to promote orderly development [and] evaluate and mitigate significant environmental impacts” would not be served if the statute is interpreted to allow a project to remain in a state of “perpetual limbo due to a procedural error.”

Finally, appellant argued that § 65009 by its own terms applied solely to legislative bodies, which did not include the findings of the planning director, a single person. Relying on Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning v. City of Stockton,210 Cal.App.4th 1484 (2012), the court held that it is the subject matter of the decision being reviewed that controls application of Government Code § 65009—not the legislative body charged with making the decision.

Conclusion and Implications

The court affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining the demurrer without leave to amend. This case clarifies that the 90-day statute of limitations applies even where inferior administrative bodies and individuals are charged with making land use decisions. While the case is specific to Los Angeles, it provides a useful illustration of a local government’s discretion in establishing procedures for challenging land use approvals. The court’s decision is available online at: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B287327.PDF

(Christina Berglund