A county airport land use commission may not exempt a specific plan adopted by a city or county from compatibility standards for development in the vicinity of an airport, according to a state attorney general’s opinion.

The opinion written by Deputy Attorney General Daniel Stone was prepared at the request of Riverside County Counsel William Katzenstein. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Riverside County and some cities adopted a host of specific plans for territory around airports in French Valley, Hemet and Corona, explained Deputy County Counsel B.T. Miller, who advises the airport commission. When state legislation required county commissions to adopt compatibility standards for land use and development intensity in the vicinity of airports, the Riverside County commission approved compatibility plans that exempted the existing specific plans. As development proposals were submitted in compliance with those specific plans, the proposals were not held to the compatibility standards, Miller said.

In time, conflicts began to arise, especially around the airport in French Valley, an unincorporated community east of Murrieta that is the location of large-scale residential development plans. Also, membership of the commission turned over, and the county began providing more professional staff assistance. The new people did not want to continue the practice of exempting development from the compatibility standards, and the new folks wanted to prepare new standards that eliminated the exemptions.

Miller said that the county counsel’s office had begun advising the commission that the exemptions were not legal. To firm up its position, the county sought the attorney general’s advice.

“In some ways, it’s an obvious opinion,” Miller said of the attorney general’s opinion. “But sometimes it’s important to state the obvious.”

The state law at issue is the State Aeronautics Act (Public Utilities Code §§ 21001-21707). The act requires a county airport commission to formulate an airport land use compatibility plan that addresses land use issues and minimizes the public’s exposure to noise and safety hazards. According to the attorney general’s opinion, § 21676 “provides a detailed procedure for resolving conflicts between a specific plan … and an airport land use compatibility plan.”

If the commission finds an inconsistency, it must notify the city or county that adopted the specific plan. The city or county may then overrule the airport commission, but only with a two-thirds vote and only if the city or county can make findings that the specific plan is consistent with the state law’s goal of minimizing the public’s exposure to noise and safety hazards. If the city or county does not either follow this procedure or amend its land use policies in question, an airport commission may require the city or county to submit “all subsequent actions, regulations, and permits to the commission for review,” according to the attorney general’s opinion, which cites § 21676.5, subdivision (a).

“In light of the elaborate procedures set forth in § 21676 and § 21676.5 for identifying and resolving inconsistencies between a specific plan and an airport land use compatibility plan, it is apparent that the Legislature did not intend or authorize a commission to grant ‘exemptions’ for a specific plan with less stringent standards than a compatibility plan,” Deputy Attorney General Stone wrote. “Instead, the act contemplates that, in the event of such a conflict, certain steps will be taken to achieve the act’s overall objectives, including possible review by the commission of ‘all subsequent actions’ taken by the city or county.”

As for Riverside County specifically, Stone wrote, “Not only would the exemption in question be inconsistent with the act’s provisions and without authorization, it would be in conflict with the act’s purposes.”

Since the attorney general issued the opinion, the Los Angeles County Airport Land Use Commission has risen from obscurity to question Mayor James Hahn’s plan for Los Angeles International Airport, suggesting that Hahn’s plan would expose the public to excessive noise and safety risks.

The attorney general’s opinion is No. 03-805 and was filed July 22, 2004. It may be found at 04 C.D.O.S. 6645 or 2004 DJDAR 9081.