The First District Court of Appeal has ruled Danville officials did not violate state planning law when approving the SummerHill Homes development at Magee Ranch in 2013, reversing a county judge's earlier finding that the town's approval of the 69-home project was inconsistent with its general plan.
"Because the (state's) Planning and Zoning Law does not require the Project to be in precise conformity with the General Plan, and since the Town's actions are reviewed under the deferential abuse of discretion standard, we find the trial court's decision was in error," wrote Associate Justice Sandra Lynn Margulies, author of the unanimous opinion released Friday.
"The Town's reading of its own General Plan is entitled to a 'strong presumption of regularity,' and will only be set aside upon a showing of abuse of discretion ... We will not disturb the Town's interpretation, so long as it is reasonable, even if plaintiff's interpretation is more reasonable," Margulies added during the 22-page opinion.
The appellate court's ruling wasn't a full endorsement of Danville's approval process, as the three justices did affirm the county court's determination that the town violated state environmental law by failing to determine whether the proposed development had significant impacts on bicycle safety.
Friday's decision left both sides -- Danville town officials and the environmental advocacy group that sued them -- claiming victories Monday morning.
"I don't view it as a 'mixed ruling,'" Danville Town Manager Joe Calabrigo said in an email. "The ruling favors the Town and supports case law that states that interpreting and applying the General Plan is 'in the province of the local governing body,' provided that it is not unreasonable."
Maryann Cella, a representative of plaintiff Save Open Space-Danville (SOS-Danville), said, "The Court's clear message is that governmental decision-makers such as the Danville Town Council members and developers such as SummerHill Homes cannot claim that bicyclist safety is not an environmental impact."
"Bicyclist safety is, instead, a significant factor that must be considered before approving new developments," she added in a written statement.
SOS-Danville originally filed suit in 2013 over the Town Council's approval of the proposed residential development at the southeast corner of Diablo and McCauley roads. The project has remained in limbo amid the ongoing litigation.
The two sides argued the civil case before Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Steven K. Austin, who ultimately agreed with SOS-Danville on the general plan argument but threw out all of the group's environmental arguments, except for bicycle safety, in his July 2014 ruling.
Austin determined the town acted improperly when it rezoned agricultural Magee Ranch land to planned unit development (P-1) without first seeking a general plan amendment to change the agricultural land-use designation. The general plan does not specifically identify P-1 as an acceptable zoning option on agriculturally designated lands.
The town argued the rezone and approved development -- with single-family homes clustered on approximately 38 acres and designating 372 acres as open space -- was in line with general plan policies for the Magee Ranch property, which was labeled as a "special concern area" in the plan.
The appeal provided vindication for the town on the general plan argument, which both sides cited as the central issue of the case coming out of the county court's decision last summer.
"The appellate court ruling that was handed down on Friday indicates that the Town correctly interpreted and applied the General Plan and did not violate Measure S, properly applied P-1 zoning (and) properly determined the allowable density allowed on the property," Calabrigo said.
Added Danville city attorney Rob Ewing, "While one result of the ruling is that the Town will need to amplify the conclusion that the 69 units proposed by SummerHill will not have a significant impact on bike safety on Diablo Road, the key result is that the project conforms to the General Plan and zoning for the property."
In the unanimous opinion, Margulies said that not specifically listing P-1 as a consistent zoning district was "problematic" for the town, but its interpretation of the general plan to allow the rezone was not unreasonable.
"As we must review the Town's decisions for an abuse of discretion ... we need only determine whether a reasonable person could agree with the Town's proposed construction. Here, we cannot say that the Town's interpretation of the General Plan is unreasonable," according to the court's opinion.
The justices noted the SummerHill Homes project "effectuates many of the policies described in the General Plan's discussion of the Magee Ranch special concern area," citing examples such as retaining scenic character of the property, conserving open space, and clustering homes on flat and unobtrusive portions of the site.
SOS-Danville representatives lambasted the justices' assertions on the town's rezoning process, which Cella contended "circumvented the voters and their right under Measure S."
A ballot measure passed in 2000, Measure S requires voter approval for developments aiming to change land-use designations of agricultural properties in Danville -- barring two specific exceptions that would allow council approval instead. The town argued the project did not invoke Measure S.
"The Appellate Court's decision on the rezoning issue is a blow to democracy and the public's right to rely on voter-enacted measures that seek to protect the right to public vote and Open Space," Cella said. "It is one more brick in walling off government from the people."
Oakland-based attorney Stuart Flashman, who represented SOS-Danville, said Monday the decision indicates the court believes a local general plan "means whatever the city or county says it means" and that "words on a page don't necessarily mean what they say."
The appellate court stood firmly behind the plaintiffs and the county judge on the issue of bicycle safety, determining the town failed to adequately address the project's potential impacts on cyclists during its environmental review required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
"We conclude substantial evidence does not support the Town's finding that the Project would have no significant impact on bicycle safety," Margulies wrote.
She later added, "We affirm the trial court's determination that the Town violated CEQA by failing to adequately investigate bicycle safety and discuss it in the (environmental impact report)."
Both sides are in the process of discussing what steps to take next, but representatives from each party indicated any further appeal is unlikely.
The Town Council is scheduled to talk about the case in closed session this Tuesday.
"While it's not my place to speak for the Council before they've discussed this, I'd say that further appeals on the Town's part are unlikely, given Friday's ruling, and that we will be focusing our attention on how to address the bike safety issue in order to comply with CEQA," Calabrigo said.
Flashman said SOS-Danville officials are weighing whether to file a petition for review to the California Supreme Court, but he noted such a review "is not very likely as it's an unpublished case."
The opinion authored by Margulies, and supported by presiding justice James M. Humes and associate justice Robert L. Dondero, was filed as an unpublished opinion -- meaning it could not be cited as precedent by other courts or parties in other legal cases.
SOS-Danville reps may request that the bicycle-safety component of the opinion become published, as they believe that ruling could be precedent-setting in requiring review of bicycle impacts as part of the CEQA process, Flashman said.
The environmental group is also considering asking the trial court to order the town to cover its attorneys fees related to the bicycle-safety component of the appeal, the attorney said.
SummerHill Homes representatives declined to comment when contacted Monday. The company was listed as a "real party in interest" in the lawsuit.