General Development Co. v. City of Santa Maria (January 25, 2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 1391
A developer applied to change the zoning designation for a 4.84 acre parcel of vacant land. The City of Santa Maria denied the request, and the developer filed a lawsuit, 97 days after the city’s final decision. The court dismissed developer’s action, holding that a challenge to a denial of a zone change application is subject to the 90-day limitation period set forth in Government Code section 65009, subdivision (c)(1)(B).
The developer argued that denial of a rezoning application does not qualify as “a decision” because it does not require the city to “adopt or amend a zoning ordinance” within the meaning of section 65009. In the developer’s view, the 90-day limitation period should only apply to “decisions” granting a zone change, not “decisions” denying a zone change.
The court looked to the Legislative intent of section 65009, finding no indication pointing toward a “grant v. denial” distinction. Instead, the short 90-day statute is intended to allow government entities, land owners, lessees, adjoining land owners, and the public, to know quickly whether there is a “theoretical cloud” hanging over the land. The court noted that section 65009 could be drafted with greater precision, but the language used does not defeat the stated legislative goal of providing “certainty for property owners and local governments” and a longer statute of limitation, combined with the typical pace of litigation, could inhibit free alienation and use of land.
This case should serve as a cautionary tale when considering whether to bring a challenge under the catch-all three-year limitations period that applies to “an action upon a liability created by statute.” For a zoning challenge, this case makes clear that an action should be brought within 90 days to avoid dismissal.
Written by: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera
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