California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George is probably most widely known for his 2008 majority opinion striking down the state's prohibition on same-sex marriages, and for his 2009 opinion begrudgingly upholding voters' ability to ban same-sex marriage and effectively reverse the court's earlier ruling. But in land use planning and development circles, George's legacy is one of centrism and consensus. Time and again, George has corralled all of his colleagues into unanimous decisions on sticky land use regulatory issues.

In light of George's announcement last week that he will not seek re-election this November, a quick review of the George court's land use decisions is in order.

In 2003, a state appellate court ruled that the method of choosing Coastal Commission members was constitutionally flawed because members appointed by the Assembly and Senate served at-will terms of office. The ruling had the potential to devastate the c`ommission's ongoing regulatory activities. State lawmakers responded by changing the system to provide their appointees with fixed four-year terms.

The state Supreme Court in Marine Forests Soc'y v. California Coastal Comm'n, 36 Cal. 4th 1 (2005) overturned the appellate panel's decision. Although the high court questioned the original, at-will terms for appointees, the court focused its ruling on the amended, fixed-term appointments. The new version was just fine, the court determined. What's more, George went out of his way in his opinion to confirm the legitimacy of past Coastal Commission decisions. George's decision angered property rights activists who had battled the Commission for decades, but what the chief justice did was prevent chaos. A less-clear ruling could have opened the commission to all sorts of legal and administrative challenges.

In 2007, the court issued a ruling for planners and, one could argue, for community control. The case involved a City of Hanford zoning regulation that prohibited most furniture sales in a planned commercial (PC) zoning district. The regulation was intended to help preserve the economic viability of downtown Hanford, which had nice collection of furniture stores in its mix of uses. A retailer located in the PC district challenged the ordinance as an unconstitutional limit on economic activity and won at the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

But George led the state high court's unanimous reversal. "In the present case, it is clear that the zoning ordinance's general prohibition on the sale of furniture in the PC district — although concededly intended, at least in part, to regulate competition — was adopted to promote the legitimate public purpose of preserving the economic viability of the Hanford downtown business district, rather than to serve any impermissible private anti-competitive purpose," George wrote in Hernandez v. City of Hanford, 41 Ca. 4th 279 (2007). Again, the court headed off chaos, as the Fifth District's decision could have been used as a basis to challenge all sorts of Euclidian zoning regulation.

During recent years, the state high court has taken an unprecedented interest in the fine details of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The court has issued nine CEQA decision during the past four years (including one case dealing more with timber harvest plans than CEQA), and eight of those nine decisions were by 7-0. One ruling had a single judge's concurring opinion, and one ruling brought a lone dissent. It's true the court hasn't had a real wildcard from the left or right since Janice Rogers Brown departed in 2005. Still, only through the chief justice's leadership could the seven-member court find unanimity on nearly every CEQA issue. And, taken as a whole, the CEQA decisions carve a path right down the middle. Neither environmentalists nor developers are on a big winning streak at the court.

This isn't to say the George court hasn't had sharp disagreements on land use law. On issues of due process for property owners and the taking of private property, the court has often split 4-3 or 5-2 in favor of regulators, with George in the majority. In general, though, those rulings upheld the regulatory system devised by voters or legislators, and implemented by various agencies. The rulings were conservative in that they did not significantly depart from legal precedent or well-established practices.

One final point: Some recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on land use matters have provided very little useful direction for planners, developers or anyone else involved. In the most recent decision, involving the rather bizarre notion of "judicial takings," it's difficult to figure out even who won.

At the California Supreme Court – at least during the George years – there has been little need to parse tea leaves or ask law professors to select the winner. Decisions may be fairly narrowly drawn, but they are clear and often useful to practitioners. Let's hope such decisions keep coming under the state's next chief justice.

– Paul Shigley