News and Articles

August 8, 2011

City’s Density Restriction Limiting Residential Development of 69-Acre Property Was Not an Illegal Spot Zone

City’s density restriction limiting residential development of 69-acre property was not an illegal spot zone

Arcadia Development Co. v. City of Morgan Hill (6th District, No. H035519, Filed 8/5/11)

By Andrea A. Matarazzo


Arcadia Development Company, the owner of an undeveloped 69-acre parcel in the City of Morgan Hill, challenged that City’s ordinance limiting subdivision of the parcel to 20-acre lots.  The 20-acre “density restriction” in the City’s zoning code applied only to the Arcadia property and to no other property within the City’s urban service area.  Arcadia argued that the City’s ordinance unfairly singled out its property, and thus constituted discriminatory spot zoning in violation of the City’s police power.  Arcadia also contended that the ordinance violated constitutional principles of equal protection.  The court of appeal rejected the property owner’s claims, concluding that “there are conceivable rational reasons for the restriction and, therefore, that the ordinance is valid.”


The density restriction provided that “[i]n order to assure that city services and resources are not unduly burdened, urban sprawl and noncontiguous development must be discouraged.”  Accordingly, the City would not provide urban services to properties within its urban service area that did not meet certain criteria – which included only the Arcadia property.


Arcadia sued the City, seeking damages and writ relief on the bases of illegal spot zoning as well as constitutional violations of Arcadia’s right to equal protection of the law.  The trial court upheld the City’s actions, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.


The appellate court first explained the nature of illegal spot zoning, which “occurs where a small parcel is restricted and given lesser rights than the surrounding property, as where a lot in the center of a business or commercial district is limited to uses for residential purposes thereby creating an ‘island’ in the middle of a larger area devoted to other uses.  [Citation]  Usually spot zoning involves a small parcel of land, the larger the property the more difficult it is to sustain an allegation of spot zoning.  [Citations.]  Likewise, where the ‘spot’ is not an island but is connected on some sides to a like zone the allegation of spot zoning is more difficult to establish since lines must be drawn at some point.  [Citation.]  Even where a small island is created in the midst of less restrictive zoning, the zoning may be upheld where rational reason in the public benefit exists for such a classification.”  (Viso v. State of California (1979) 92 Cal.App.3d 15, 22.)


Applying this definition, the Court of Appeal found that the City’s ordinance was valid, because “[t]he Arcadia property is not a small parcel.  It is nearly 70 acres in size.  And it is not surrounded by property with less restrictive zoning designations.  There is development on two sides of the property but the land on the other two sides is rural agricultural, just like the Arcadia property.”  As such, the court reasoned, the City’s 20-acre parcel limitation was not an unlawful spot zone.  Furthermore, according to the appellate court, the ordinance was a valid exercise of the City’s police power because it was substantially and reasonably related to the goals of limiting burdens on City services and resources, discouraging noncontiguous development and urban sprawl, and maintaining the City’s unique rural character.


By Andrea Matarazzo


Andrea advises and advocates for private and public clients in all aspects of project permitting and entitlements, environmental compliance, and litigation, particularly regarding environmental review under CEQA and NEPA, land use and zoning issues, air quality regulation, climate change law and policy, water supply and water quality mandates, state and federal endangered species laws, wetlands permitting, and other regulatory requirements.


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