In reviewing a project's consistency as part of an environmental review, a city need not comply with every single general plan policy so long as it concludes that most general plan policies are being followed, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

In a case involving a proposed bridge and parking garage in Balboa Park, the appellate court also overruled a trial judge's ruling that the City of San Diego violated its own municipal code by concluding that there would be "no reasonable beneficial use" of the famed Plaza de Panama if the bridge project were not built.

The case involves a proposal to remove automobiles from the Plaza de Panama in order to avoid conflicts between pedestrians and automobiles. The proposal would include construction of a new bridge, the Centennial Bridge, that would connect the historic Cabrillo Bridge to a new underground parking garage south of the Plaza. 

The relevance of the court ruling isn't clear, however. In 2013, then-Mayor Bob Filner simply closed the Plaza to traffic, so currently cars do not traverse the Plaza even though the bridge has not been built. Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who supports the new bridge, said the city staff would review the ruling to see whether the bridge project should go forward anyway. 

After the City Council approved the bridge project in 2012, Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), a prominent historic preservation group in San Diego, filed suit against the city on a wide variety of grounds.

Most significantly from a local perspective, SOHO argued that the city had violated Municipal Code Section 126.0504, which requires – at least in situations where there are impacts on historic resources -- that the city find that there can be "no reasonable beneficial use" of the property in question unless the project is constructed.

The city acknowledged that the new bridge would have a significant visual impact on the historic resource of Cabrillo Bridge. However, it found that there could be "no reasonable beneficial use" of the property without the new bridge because conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles in the Plaza de Panama would continue.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor ruled in favor of SOHO, saying there was no substantial evidence for the ruling. But the appellate court disagreed.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Justice Alex McDonald said the city had demonstrated that "denial of the Project would mean traffic congestion and conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles would continue to burden the users of the (Plaza de Panama) Complex, and denial of the Project would prevent City from recapturing those areas currently being claimed and used by vehicles as thoroughfares and parking lots and reclaiming those lands for parklands and pedestrian spaces."

More important from a statewide perspective was SOHO's challenge to the city's conclusion – again under the municipal code – that substantial evidence exists to support the conclusion that the project would not adversely affect the city's land use plans. 

The EIR documented in detail a wide range of land use plans and policies calling for improvements to pedestrian use of the Plaza and a decrease in pedestrian-vehicular conflicts, including the city general plan, the Balboa Park master plan, and the Central Mesa precise plan. The EIR also documented many aspects of the proposed project that promoted those goals. 

However, as McDonald put it, "SOHO appears to assert that, as long as a project opponent can identify any stated goal or policy within an applicable land use plan that would be adversely affected by a project, the decision-maker is precluded from finding approval of a project would not adversely affect the applicable land use plans even if the decision maker finds, based on substantial evidence, the proposed project would be consistent with vast majority of the goals and policies of the applicable land use plans."

As Judge Taylor had, the trial court, the appellate court rejected this reasoning. In fact, he said, case law stands contrary to this proposition. 

Justice McDonald quoted at length from Sequoyah Hills Homeowners Assn. v. City of Oakland (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 704, in which the First District wrote: "It is beyond cavil that no project could completely satisfy every policy stated in the [general plan], and that state law does not impose such a requirement A general plan must try to accommodate a wide range of competing interests—including those of developers, neighboring homeowners, prospective homebuyers, environmentalists, current and prospective business owners, jobseekers, taxpayers, and providers and recipients of all types of city-provided services—and to present a clear and comprehensive set of principles to guide development decisions.  Once a general plan is in place, it is the province of elected city officials to examine the specifics of a proposed project to determine whether it would be 'in harmony' with the policies stated in the plan. It is, emphatically, not the role of the courts to micromanage these development decisions.

The Case:

Save Our Heritage Organization v. City of San Diego, No. D063992 

The Lawyers:

For Save Our Heritage Organization (plaintiff and appellant): Susan Brandt-Hawley,

For Plaza de Panama Committee (real party in interest and appellant): G. Scott Williams, Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, 

For the City of San Diego (defendants and respondents): Jana Mickova Will, Deputy City Attorney,