California Supreme Court Holds Mitigation Fee Act Applies to Inclusionary Housing

by Nossaman LLP

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court decided one of two pending cases dealing with inclusionary housing, holding that when a public agency requires a developer to convey units at below market rates and make substantial cash payments, the developer may challenge these conditions under the California Mitigation Fee Act.  (Sterling Park v. City of Palo Alto (Oct. 17, 2013) 2013 Cal. Lexis 8112.)  The California Supreme Court’s decision clarifies the scope of the Mitigation Fee Act, confirming that inclusionary in-lieu fees are subject to the essential nexus and rough proportionality test.

In Sterling Park v. City of Palo Alto, as a condition of approving a 96 unit condominium development, the City required the developer to set aside 10 condominium units as below-market-rate housing and make a substantial in-lieu cash payment to a City fund.  In 2006, a representative for the developer executed a letter agreeing to the City’s terms.  The parties subsequently executed an agreement incorporating the conditions, and the City approved a tentative subdivision map and a final subdivision map.  In 2009, as the construction was nearing completion, the City requested that the developer convey the 10 units designated for below-market-rate housing.  The developer responded by sending a letter asserting that the prior agreements were signed under duress, and that the conditions were invalid.

In October 2009, the developer filed an action seeking to enjoin the City from enforcing the conditions, and a declaration that the inclusionary housing requirements were invalid under the Mitigation Fee Act.  The City moved for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds, arguing that the developer’s action was barred by the Subdivision Map Act.  The trial court granted the City’s motion and the court of appeal affirmed.  Both the trial court and the court of appeal heavily relied on Trinity Park, L.P. v. City of Sunnyvale (2011) 193 Cal.App.4th 1014, which held that the statute of limitations in the Subdivision Map Act (Gov. Code, § 66499.37) applied to a challenge to the City’s inclusionary housing requirement.

The California Supreme Court explained that while the language in the Subdivision Map Act is certainly broad enough to apply in this case, the question is whether the Mitigation Fee Act, which deals expressly with challenging the “imposition of any fees, dedications, reservations, or other exactions imposed on a development project,” controls.  The Court, applying a rule of statutory construction, found that if the Mitigation Fee Act applied it would control over the Subdivision Map Act.  As such, the Court turned to the question of whether the Mitigation Fee Act applied.

This question required the Court to determine whether the requirements at issue are “any fees dedications, reservations, or other exactions imposed on a development project.” (Gov. Code, § 66000.)  In Trinity Park, L.P. v. City of Sunnyvale, the court of appeal held that in order for “any fee . . . or other exactions” to be subject to the Mitigation Fee Act, the fee or exaction must be imposed “for the purpose of defraying all or a portion of the cost of public facilities related to the development project.”  (Trinity Park, L.P. v. City of Sunnyvale, supra, 193 Cal.App.4th at p. 1035-1036.)  The California Supreme Court held that the Trinity Park court erred in interpreting the terms so narrowly.  After expressly noting its disapproval of Trinity Park, the Court stated that the term “other exactions” should be interpreted broadly, holding that it “at least includes actions that divest the developer of money or a possessory interest in property, but it does not include land use restrictions.”  The Court also briefly expounded on what it meant by “land use restrictions,” stating that the Mitigation Fee Act would not apply to restrictions on the number of units a project can contain, or how large each unit can be, “or the validity of other use restrictions a local entity might impose.”

Addressing Program H-36, the Court rejected the City’s argument that the Program was merely a land use restriction.  The Court found that the imposition of the in-lieu fee is “certainly similar to a fee,” and therefore an exaction subject to the provisions of the Mitigation Fee Act.  The Court also found that the requirement that a developer give the City a purchase option is an exaction under the Mitigation Fee Act.  Notably, however, the Court declined to decide whether requiring a developer to sell some units below market value was subject to the Mitigation Fee Act.  The Court stated that it did not need to reach this decision, because in this case the City had required the developer to convey to the City the below-market-rate designated homes.

The California Supreme Court’s decision provides some significant relief to developers, as it allows them to continue with a development, and thereby avoid the often substantial expenses associated with delaying a large project, while maintaining their right to challenge in-lieu fees – and potentially all inclusionary housing conditions.  While the Court expressly declined to hold that requiring a developer to sell some units below market value is subject to the Mitigation Fee Act, and therefore the nexus/rough proportionality test, the logic employed by the Court implies that it would likely answer this question in the affirmative.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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