Attorney for City of Morgan Hill says appeals court broke with 30 years of land use law

By Angela Underwood | Jun 12, 2017

MORGAN HILL — Donald A. Larkin, lawyer for the City of Morgan Hill, told the Northern California Record that the city is disappointed that a California appeals court disagreed with more than 30 years of legal precedent in zoning referendums.

On May 30, the California Sixth District Court of Appeal rejected the city’s argument that if voters passed a proposed referendum to stop the re-designation of a vacant lot, it would make the land inconsistent with the city’s general land use plan.

“While we are currently reviewing our options for further review, we respect the authority of the court and will comply with the ultimate orders,” Larkin said.

The legal fight arose after the Morgan Hill City Council passed an ordinance in April 2015 that changed the land’s zoning designation to “general commercial,” which would have allowed River Park Hospitality to build a hotel on the land.

The following month, the Morgan Hill Hotel Coalition, a group of local hotel owners, filed a petition to hold a public referendum to block the ordinance. 

In July 2015, the city blocked the coalition’s petition, arguing that if the referendum passed, it would create an “inconsistency” in the city’s general land use plan. 

The city changed course in February 2016, scheduling the referendum for June 2016. But in March 2016, the city reneged and filed suit to remove the referendum from the ballot.

Though Larkin is disappointed in the ruling, he said he respects the referendum process.

“The referendum process is essential…” Larkin said. “But the voters cannot do what the city council would not be able to do legally. In this case, certain hotel owners argue that the zoning on the site of a proposed new hotel should remain industrial.”

Larkin said there are other ways than a referendum for the zoning designation. 

“If the voters wish to prohibit a new hotel on the proposed site, they could approve an initiative to change the city's general plan to a land-use designation that would not allow [a] hotel,” he said. “Our objection is to using a referendum process, which will preclude the city from complying with our legal requirement to make zoning consistent with the general plan.”

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