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Carson Harbor Village, Ltd. v. City of Carson

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Eighth Division

July 31, 2015

CARSON HARBOR VILLAGE, LTD., Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
CITY OF CARSON, Defendant and Appellant.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County No. BS133538. James C. Chalfant, Judge.

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COUNSEL

Aleshire & Wynder, William W. Wynder, Sunny K. Soltani and Jeff M. Malawy, for Defendant and Appellant.

Gilchrist & Rutter, Richard H. Close, Thomas W. Casparian, and Yen N. Hope, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

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OPINION

RUBIN, J.

The City of Carson appeals from the judgment in this mandate action directing it to approve Carson Harbor Village, Ltd.’s application to convert its mobilehome park from a rental facility to a subdivision of resident-owned lots. We reverse because substantial evidence supports the City’s findings that allowing the conversion would be inconsistent with the open space element of its general plan by placing at risk a state and federally regulated wetlands area within the confines of the mobilehome park.

OVERVIEW

Cities must have general plans governing development, including the protection of open space, and must also deny proposed subdivisions that are inconsistent with their general plans. (Gov. Code, §§ 65300, 65302, 66474, subd. (b), 66498.6, 65567.)[1] The conversion of a mobilehome park from individual space rentals to lot ownership is a subdivision subject to the subdivision laws. (§§ 66424, 66427.4, 66427.5, 66428.1.) The statute governing that procedure is concerned with protecting low-income renters and a proposed conversion may be denied if the applicable local agency determines that the proposal is a sham designed to dodge local rent control ordinances. (§ 66427.5.) However, that statute limits the scope of the local agency’s hearing to the issue of compliance with those statutory requirements. (§ 66427.5, subd. (e).)

Previous Courts of Appeal held that the scope of hearing provision barred local agencies from imposing additional conditions related to the bona fide conversion issue. In reliance on those decisions, we held in our earlier decision in this case that the scope of hearing provision also prevented local agencies from denying a proposed mobilehome park conversion if it was inconsistent with elements of a city’s general plan. (Carson Harbor Village, Ltd. v. City of Carson (Mar. 30, 2010, B211777) [nonpub. opn.] (Carson Harbor I).) Our Supreme Court’s later decision in Pacific Palisades Bowl Mobile Estates, LLC v. City of Los Angeles (2012) 55 Cal.4th 783 [149 Cal.Rptr.3d 383, 288 P.3d 717] (Pacific Palisades) has led us to reconsider that part of our decision in Carson Harbor I and conclude that at least under the facts of this case, they now can.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Carson Harbor Village, Ltd. (the park), is a mobilehome park in the City of Carson (City). It consists of 420 rental spaces on 70 acres of land, 17 acres of

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which are federally and state regulated wetlands and which is the only open space area within the City. In 2007 the City rejected the park’s application to convert from rental spaces to a subdivision of individually owned lots. The primary reason for the denial was the City’s finding that the proposed subdivision was a sham intended to skirt the City’s rent control laws, based on the supposed inadequacy of tenant support surveys, as well as a lack of tenant support. The City also denied the application because the proposed subdivision was inconsistent with the affordable housing and open space elements of its general plan.[2]

A 2008 mandate action by the park led to a trial court judgment against the City. The trial court found that: (1) even though a 2005 tenant survey had been inadequate, a 2007 survey by the park had been properly conducted; (2) in any event, the application could not be rejected based on a lack of tenant support; and (3) the City could not deny the application for inconsistency with its general plan. The City appealed and we reversed in part and affirmed in part in Carson Harbor I, supra, B211777.

We held that the City could find the subdivision plan was a sham based on the lack of tenant support and remanded the matter back to the trial court with directions to order the City to reconsider the application in light of the 2007 survey, along with directions to receive additional information that would clarify or supplement the application and the evidence received before. (Carson Harbor I, supra, B211777.) We also held that the City could not reject the application based on its supposed inconsistency with elements of its general plan. (Ibid.)[3]

On remand, the City held new public hearings in 2011 and once more rejected the park’s subdivision application. The City found that even though purchase incentives offered by the park had increased tenant support from 11 percent to 24 percent, that level of support was insufficient. The City also found that the proposed conversion was not bona fide because it was unlikely that many of the low income tenants living in the park would agree to buy their lots, the tenant survey improperly gauged support for the incentives, not the conversion, and the required tenant impact report did not include information requested about the wetlands and the displacement effect on current tenants. The City alternatively denied the application because it was inconsistent with its general plan’s affordable housing and open space elements and posed a risk to the wetlands and its wildlife. (§ 66474, subds. (b) & (e).)

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The park brought another mandate action. The trial court issued an interim order that the City conduct a new hearing, and take expert evidence, concerning only the issue of whether the proposed conversion was bona fide. In 2012, the City held that hearing and once more rejected the park’s subdivision application. The matter returned to the trial court, which found for the park on the bona fide conversion issue. The trial court also found that, in part based on our prior opinion, inconsistency with a local agency’s general plan was not a proper ground to deny the application and that, in any event, there was no evidence the park’s proposal was inconsistent with the City’s general plan.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review the City’s decision to deny the park’s subdivision application under the substantial evidence standard. (218 Properties, LLC v. City of Carson (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th 182, 189 [171 Cal.Rptr.3d 608] (218 Properties).) We do not review and are not bound by the trial court’s factual findings or legal conclusions. (Ibid.) Instead, our scope of review is the same as the trial court’s: we examine the entire record to determine whether the City’s findings were supported by substantial evidence. (Ibid.) However, we begin with the presumption that the findings are supported by substantial evidence. It is the park’s burden to prove otherwise. (Carson Harbor Village, Ltd. v. City of Carson Mobilehome Park Rental Review Bd. (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 281, 287 [82 Cal.Rptr.2d 569].)

DISCUSSION

1. The Laws Regarding General Plans and Subdivisions

All local governments must have a comprehensive and long-term general plan for the development of land within their boundaries. (§ 65300.) The general plan sits atop the hierarchy of land use regulations. (DeVita v. County of Napa (1995) 9 Cal.4th 763, 773 [38 Cal.Rptr.2d 699, 889 P.2d 1019] (DeVita).) Acting mach like a land-use constitution, it is the basic charter governing the direction of future land use within a locality. (Lesher Communications, Inc. v. City of Walnut Creek (1990) 52 Cal.3d 531, 540, 542 [277 Cal.Rptr. 1, 802 P.2d 317].) The propriety of virtually any local land use decision depends upon its consistency with the general plan. (Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors (1990) 52 Cal.3d 553, 570 [276 Cal.Rptr. 410, 801 P.2d 1161].)

The general plan must include seven elements – land use, circulation, conservation, housing, noise, safety, and open space – and must address each in whatever level of detail local conditions require. (DeVita, supra,

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9 Cal.4th at p. 773; §§ 65301, 65302.) Open-space land includes areas designated for the preservation of natural resources such as plant and animal life, including habitats for fish and wildlife species, along with streams and watershed lands. (§ 65560, subd. (b)(1).)

When enacting the open space elements law, the Legislature made several findings. (§ 65561.) The Legislature found that preserving open-space land was “necessary not only for the maintenance of the economy of the state, but also for the assurance of the continued availability of land for the production of food and fiber, for the enjoyment of scenic beauty, for recreation and for the use of natural resources.” (§ 65561, subd. (a).) The Legislature also found that increasing population “demands that cities, counties, and the state at the earliest possible date make definite plans for the preservation of valuable open-space land and take positive action to carry out such plans by the adoption and strict administration of laws....” (§ 65561, subd. (c).) Therefore the open space elements law was “necessary for the promotion of the general welfare and for the protection of the public interest in open-space land.” (§ 65561, subd. (e).)

The Legislature also declared its intent in adopting the open space element law: “(a) To assure that cities and counties recognize that open-space land is a limited and valuable resource which must be conserved wherever possible. [¶] (b) To assure that every city and county will prepare and carry out open-space plans which, along with state and regional open-space plans, will accomplish the objectives of a comprehensive open-space program.” (§ 65562.) Therefore, “[n]o building permit may be issued, no subdivision map approved, and no open-space zoning ordinance adopted, unless the proposed construction, subdivision or ordinance is consistent with the local open-space plan.” (§ 65567.)

The Subdivision Map Act (§§ 66410-66499.37 (the Map Act)) is the primary regulatory control over the subdivision of real property in California. (Pacific Palisades, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 798.) The Map Act is designed to promote orderly community developments and involves an application process that culminates in public hearings to determine whether a subdivision map will be approved. (55 Cal.4th at p. 799.) The Map Act lists a number of circumstances that require denial of a map, including inconsistency with an applicable general plan (§ 66474, subd. (b)), and the likelihood that the proposed subdivision will cause substantial environmental damage or substantially and avoidably injure fish or wildlife or their habitat. (§ 66474, subd. (e).) Mobilehome park conversions are subdivisions subject to the Map Act. (§§ 66424, 66427.4, 66427.5, 66428.1; Pacific Palisades, at p. 800.)

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2. Mobilehome Park Conversion Statutes

In 1984, the Legislature passed the Mobilehome Park Resident Ownership Program (Health & Saf. Code, § 50780, et seq., (MPROP)) because mobile-home parks—a significant source of affordable housing—were threatened by cost increases, physical deterioration, and pressures to convert them to other uses. (Pacific Palisades, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 803-804.) MPROP was designed to encourage and facilitate the conversion of mobilehome park ownership by residents, local public entities, or qualified nonprofit ...


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