United States: California Court Issues First Decision Addressing SCEA Environmental Review

David L. Preiss is a Partner and Emily Martinez Lieban is an Associate both in our San Francisco office

In the recently published Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento, No. C086182, (Cal. Ct. App. July 3, 2019), the California Court of Appeal rejected challenges to the land use approvals and related environmental determinations for a 15-story, 134-unit housing/mixed use project located in midtown Sacramento, California. This is the first Court of Appeal decision to address environmental review using a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA) under Senate Bill 375.


Petitioner Sacramentans for Fair Planning challenged the city's reliance on the recently adopted streamlining provisions established by the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, commonly known as SB 375.

SB 375 authorizes the review of qualifying projects using the relatively new SCEA, which streamlines required environmental review required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In this case, the city relied on a SCEA in approving the 15-story development in midtown Sacramento. The petitioner argued that the city's action violated CEQA on two grounds: 1) the Metropolitan Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (MTP/SCS) standards were too vague to determine whether the project was consistent, and 2) the project's cumulative impacts were not addressed by the environmental impact reports (EIRs) prepared for the city's General Plan or for the MTP/SCS.

The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments. The MTP/SCS was only required to identify the general location, densities and intensities within the region, not provide site-specific zoning or development standards. As long as the proposal complied with the recommendations of the MTP/SCS, the project was eligible for a SCEA. Further, the Court of Appeal found that the city was entitled to rely on the cumulative effects analyzed in the EIRs for the city's General Plan and the MTP/SCS. The petitioner's argument that the project proposed significantly more housing on the site than contemplated under the zoning code was unavailing since the intensity had been reviewed through the MTP/SCS EIR.


A provision in the city's General Plan allowed for the staff to approve a more intensive development when justified by the "significant community benefits" associated with the project. Relying on that provision, the city approved a development 150 percent higher than authorized in the General Plan with a floor area ratio (FAR) three times what was specified in the General Plan.

The petitioner in Sacramentans argued that the city's decision to allow a more intensive development than contemplated under the zoning code and General Plan was impermissible "spot zoning," violating equal protection, due process and an implied-in-law zoning contract.

The court rejected each of petitioners' contentions.

First, the project at issue in Sacramentans was not truly an issue of spot zoning. Spot zoning occurs where a small parcel is given lesser rights than the surrounding property. In Sacramentans, the property actually obtained greater rights and there was no evidence in the record that any neighboring parcels had sought and were denied the same intensity. Even if it were spot zoning, "the zoning may be upheld where rational reason in the public benefit exists for such a classification."

Second, neither equal protection nor due process mandate "such a high standard of uniformity in zoning." The petitioner argued that equal protection and due process require that restrictions on one parcel in a zone apply to all parcels in the zone and that each parcel in the zone has the same opportunity to develop as any other. The court found that, "Equal protection does not require zoning uniformity where, as here, the different treatment is rationally related to a governmental purpose." As required under the governing General Plan provision, the city had made extensive findings regarding the community benefits derived from more intense development. The court found the city had articulated a rational basis.

Finally, the court found that "there is no constitutional doctrine or common law social contract in California that compels zoning legislation and land use permits to meet a standard higher than the rationality and reasonableness required by the Fourteenth Amendment." The court declined to extend the analogy to a contract first offered in Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles, 11 Cal. 3d 506, 517-18 (1974).

This case confirms that asserting a "spot zoning" argument will be an uphill battle since it will be very difficult to disprove any rational basis for differential land use controls.

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