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Spot Zoning in California Permissible if Facts Support Benefit to Community


On January 13, 2014, the California Court of Appeal decided a case clarifying the issues surrounding "spot zoning" in California.

In Foothill Communities Coalition v. County of Orange, three justices for the Fourth District Court of Appeal approved of the quasi-legislative actions by the Orange County Board of Supervisors (the Board) to create a new zoning designation for a community designed for senior citizens where the surrounding property is other residential development and open space. The project required that the Board create a new zoning definition for senior residential housing, and applied it to the Project site. The Court determined that though such action was "spot zoning," it was not impermissible spot zoning.

In the Court's discussion of spot zoning, it cited Avenida San Juan Partnership v. City of San Clemente (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th 1256, noting that, "The essence of spot zoning is irrational discrimination." The classic spot zoning situation is where a small parcel is restricted and given lesser rights than the surrounding property, creating an "island" in the middle of a larger area of other uses. The Court also noted that where the "spot" is not an island but is connected to a like zone, the allegation of spot zoning is more difficult to establish since lines must be drawn at some point. Furthermore, even if a small island is created in the midst of less restrictive zoning, such zoning may be upheld where the board or council demonstrates a rational reason in the public benefit exists for such a classification.

What makes this case unique is that no prior published case in California has directly addressed the type of spot zoning at issue here-where the small parcel is given greater rights than the surrounding property. The Court clarified that indeed under California law, spot zoning may result when a small parcel of land is subject to more or less restrictive zoning than surrounding properties. They noted that several published cases in California indirectly acknowledge that spot zoning occurs whether the "spot" is subject to more or less restrictive zoning than the surrounding property. (citing Tandy v. City of Oakland (1962) 208 Cal.App.2d 609; Case v. City of Los Angeles (1956) 142 Cal.App.2d 66).

The Court of Appeal agreed with the decision of the Board, and clarified the law regarding spot zoning in two respects: "First, spot zoning may occur whether a small parcel of property is subject to more or less restrictive zoning than the surrounding properties. Second, to determine whether impermissible spot zoning has occurred, a court is required to conduct a two-part analysis. After determining that spot zoning has actually occurred, the court must determine whether the record shows the spot zoning is in the public interest." In doing so, the Court applied a deferential standard of review to the Board's opinion on the quasi-legislative acts of making such determinations. The Court noted that no action of the Board was arbitrary or capricious, or totally lacking in evidentiary support, as the Board made requisite findings to support its decision.

Ultimately the Court held that the Board's action to create "an island of property with less restrictive zoning in the middle of properties with more restrictive zoning" was, in fact, spot zoning. However, the Court clarified that this does not end the analysis because spot zoning may or may not be impermissible, depending on the circumstances. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed the long held idea -- but unlitigated rule-- that spot zoning may well be in the public interest if the record shows that the public would benefit from it.

The winning factor in the case occurred well before the matter was argued in court or even challenged by the project opponents.

That factor was that the Board had substantial findings supporting their decision to confer special benefits to the particular parcel and that in doing so, the public at large would benefit from such action. It cannot be stressed enough as to the importance of building a sound foundation of factual analysis incorporated into findings adopted by the legislative body to create a clear administrative record in support of such a decision.

Should you have any questions regarding the issue of spot zoning in particular, review of administrative records supporting a land use decision, or land use law in general, feel free to contact Andrew L. Jared at or (562) 699-5500.


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