Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles

Decision Date17 May 1974
Citation11 Cal.3d 506,113 Cal.Rptr. 836
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 522 P.2d 12 TOPANGA ASSOCIATION FOR A SCENIC COMMUNITY, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Respondents; James Warren BASSLER et al., Real Parties in Interest and Respondents. L.A. 30139.

Amdur, Bryson, Caplan & Morton, and David L. Caplan, Marina Del Rey, for plaintiff and appellant.

John D. Maharg, County Counsel, Joe Ben Hudgens, John W. Whitsett and David H. Breier, Deputy County Counsel, Los Angeles, for defendants and respondents.

Arnold J. Provisor, Los Angeles, for real parties in interest.

TOBRINER, Justice.

We examine, in this case, aspects of the functions served by administrative agencies in the granting of zoning variances and of courts in reviewing these proceedings by means of administrative mandamus. We conclude that variance boards like the ones involved in the present case must render findings to support their ultimate rulings. We also conclude that when called upon to scrutinize a grant of a variance, a reviewing court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the findings of the administrative board and whether the findings support the board's action. 1 We determine in the present case that the last of these requisites has not been fulfilled.

The parties in this action dispute the future of approximately 28 acres in Topanga Canyon located in the Santa Monica Mountains region of Los Angeles County. A county ordinance zones the property for light agriculture and single family residences; 2 it also prescribes a one-acre minimum lot size. Upon recommendation of its zoning board and despite the opposition of appellant-petitioner--an incorporated nonprofit organization composed of taxpayers and owners of real property in the canyon--the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission granted to the Topanga Canyon Investment Company a variance to establish a 93-space mobile home park on this acreage. 3 Petitioner appealed without success to the county board of supervisors, thereby exhausting its administrative remedies. Petitioner then sought relief by means of administrative mandamus, again unsuccessfully, in Los Angeles County Superior Court and the Court of Appeal for the Second District.

In reviewing the denial of mandamus below, we first consider the proper role of agency and reviewing court with respect to the grant of variances. We then apply the proper standard of review to the facts of the case in order to determine whether we should sustain the action of the Los Angeles County Regional planning Commission.

1. An administrative grant of a variance must be accompanied by administrative findings. A court reviewing that grant must determine whether substantial evidence supports the findings and whether the findings support the conclusion that all applicable legislative requirements for a variance have been satisfied.

A comprehensive zoning plan could affect owners of some parcels unfairly if no means were provided to permit flexibility. Accordingly, in an effort to achieve substantial parity and perhaps also in order to insulate zoning schemes from constitutional attack, 4 our Legislature laid a foundation for the granting of variances. Enacted in 1965, section 65906 of the Government Code establishes criteria for these grants; it provides: 'Variances from the terms of the zoning ordinance shall be granted only when, because of special circumstances applicable to the property, including size, shape, topography, location or surroundings, the strict application of the zoning ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under identical zoning classification.' ( ) Any variance granted shall be subject to such conditions as will assure that the adjustment thereby authorized shall not constitute a grant of special privileges inconsistent with the limitations upon other properties in the vicinity and zone in which such property is situated. 5

Applicable to all zoning jurisdictions except chartered cities (Gov.Code, § 65803), section 65906 may be supplemented by harmonious local legislation. 6 We note that Los Angeles County has enacted an ordinance which, if harmonious with section 65906, would govern the Topanga Canyon property here under consideration. Los Angeles County's Zoning Ordinance No. 1494, section 522, provides: 7 'An exception (variance) may . . . be granted where there are practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships in the way of carrying out the strict letter of the ordinance, and in the granting of such exception the spirit of the ordinance will be observed, public safety secured, and substantial justice done.'

Both state and local lows thus were designed to establish requirements which had to be satisfied before the Topanga Canyon Investment Company should have been granted its variance. Although the cases have held that substantial evidence must support the award of a variance in order to insure that such legislative requirements have been satisfied 8 (see, e.g., Siller v. Board of Supervisors (1962), 58 Cal.2d 479, 482, 25 Cal.Rptr. 73, 375 P.2d 41; Bradbeer v. England (1951), 104 Cal.App.2d 704, 707, 232 P.2d 308), they have failed to clarify whether the administrative agency must always set forth findings and have not illuminated the proper relationship between the evidence, findings, and ultimate agency action. 9

One of the first decisions to emphasize the importance of judicial scrutiny of the record in order to determine whether substantial evidence supported administrative findings that the property in question met the legislative variance requirements was that penned by Justice Molinari in Cow Hollow Improvement Club v. Board of Permit Appeals (1966), 245 Cal.App.2d 160, 53 Cal.Rptr. 610. Less than one year later, we followed the approach of that case in Broadway, Laguna, etc., Ass'n v. Board of Permit Appeals (1967), 66 Cal.2d 767, 59 Cal.Rptr. 146, 427 P.2d 810, and ordered that a zoning board's grant of a variance be set aside because the party seeking the variance had failed to adduce sufficient evidence to support administrative findings that the evidence satisfied the requisites for a variance set forth in the same San Francisco ordinance.

Understandably, however, the impact of these opinions remained uncertain. The San Francisco ordinance applicable in Cow Hollow and Broadway explicitly required the zoning board to specify its subsidiary findings and ultimate conclusions; this circumstance raised the question whether a court should require findings and examine their sufficiency in a case in which the applicable local legislation did not explicitly command the administrative body to set forth findings. Indeed language in Broadway intimated that such a case was distinguishable. (Broadway, Laguna, etc., Ass'n v. Board of Permit Appeals, Supra, at pp. 772--773, 59 Cal.Rptr. 146, 427 P.2d 810. See also Stoddard v. Edelman (1970), 4 Cal.App.3d 544, 549, 84 Cal.Rptr. 443. Cf. Friends of Mammoth v. Board of Supervisors (1972), 8 Cal.3d 247, 270, 104 Cal.Rptr. 761, 502 P.2d 1049.) Further, neither Cow Hollow nor Broadway confronted Government Code section 65906, since both cases concerned a chartered city. 10 There thus also remained uncertainty with respect to cases involving zoning jurisdictions other than chartered cities.

Nevertheless, in an opinion subsequent to Broadway, Hamilton v. Board of Supervisors (1969), 269 Cal.App.2d 64, 75 Cal.Rptr. 106, a Court of Appeal set aside the grant of a variance by a planning commission under circumstances different from those in Broadway and Cow hollow. The zoning jurisdiction involved in that controversy was a county, not a chartered city, and the court's opinion did not suggest that any applicable ordinance required administrative findings. Deeming Government Code section 65906 'concededly controlling,' (Hamilton v. Board of Supervisors, Supra, at p. 67, 75 Cal.Rptr. 106), the court undertook the task of squaring the findings announced by the commission with the commission's grant of the variance and concluded that the findings were insufficient to sustain the variance.

Consistent with the reasoning underlying these cases, we hold that regardless of whether the local ordinance commands that the variance board set forth findings, 11 that body must render findings sufficient both to enable the parties to determine whether and on what basis they should seek review and, in the event of review, to apprise a reviewing court of the basis for the board's action. We hold further that a reviewing court, before sustaining the grant of a variance, must scrutinize the record and determine whether substantial evidence supports the administrative agency's findings and whether these findings support the agency's decision. In making these determinations, the reviewing court must resolve reasonable doubts in favor of the administrative findings and decision.

Our analysis begins with consideration of Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, the state's administrative mandamus provision which structures the procedure for judicial review of adjudicatory decisions rendered by administrative agencies. Without doubt, this provision applies to the review of variances awarded by bodies such as the Los Angeles County zoning agencies that participated in the present case. 12 Section 1094.5 clearly contemplates that at minimum, the reviewing court must determine both whether substantial evidence supports the administrative agency's findings and whether the findings support the agency's decision. Subdivision (b) of section 1094.5 prescribes that when petitioned for a writ of mandamus, a court's inquiry should extend, among other issues, to whether 'there was any prejudicial abuse of discretion.' Subdivision (b) then defines 'abuse of discretion' to include instances in which the administrative order or decision 'is not supported by the...

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