Parcel with Less Restrictive Zoning than the Surrounding Parcels is "Spot Zoning"

Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange

(2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1302

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, in a case of first impression, recently overturned a trial court by holding that, although creation of a parcel with less restrictive zoning than the surrounding parcels is "spot zoning", spot zoning that is in furtherance of the public interest is permissible. Prior to this decision, spot zoning cases had only addressed instances in which parcels had been given more restrictive rights than the surrounding parcels.

A landowner in North Tustin, Orange County, sought to develop its property as a senior residential community (the "project"). The project was located in an area governed by a specific plan that designated the project's site for single-family residential development. In approving the project, the Board of Supervisors changed the project's zoning from single-family residential to a more permissive zoning designation that permitted senior residential development. A coalition of community groups challenged the Board's decision, arguing it constituted impermissible spot zoning.

While the community groups argued this was a case of impermissible spot zoning, the developer argued spot zoning only occurs when a parcel is subject to more restrictive zoning. The Court disagreed with both parties. In response to the developer, the Court stated, the "creation of an island of property with less restrictive zoning in the middle of properties with more restrictive is spot zoning." The project's re-designation was, therefore, spot zoning. Responding to the community groups, however, the court stated that this type of spot zoning is permissible if it creates a public benefit. The Court then turned to the question of public benefit: addressing whether the county's determination that the project was in the public interest was arbitrary and capricious. The community groups' main argument was that the change in zoning was impermissible because it was inconsistent with the specific plan. In its formal findings, however, the county had found the project was consistent with the specific plan on the grounds that the project was compatible with the surrounding area, and the needs of the area had changed in the thirty years since the passage of the specific plan. Additionally, the County found that the project was consistent with the county general plan, and the California Legislature encourages development of senior housing. Because the County's findings were supported by substantial evidence, the Court concluded that Board's actions were not arbitrary or capricious. The Court reversed the trial court ruling and upheld the project's re-designation as permissible spot zoning.

Here, the Court clarified that spot zoning includes parcels with less restrictive zoning designations than the surrounding parcels. A determination that a spot zone exists, however, is not the end of the analysis; it must also be determined whether such spot zone is permissible or impermissible. The question of whether the spot zone is justified is a fact based inquiry to determine whether the designation is in the public interest. The rezoning is justified upon a determination that the less restrictive spot zone is in the public interest.

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