Neighboring developers win again as judge invalidates Richland’s Initiative for The Ranch development

Map of area covered by the Richland Communities’ alternative initiative, and The Ranch 1,177-home project that was ruled invalid by a Superior Court judge. Herald file graphic.

By Allen Payton

On Friday, November 22, 2019 Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Edward G. Weil issued the final ruling in the lawsuits brought by Oak Hill Partners and Zeka Ranch against the City of Antioch and developer Richland Communities, that “the entire Richland Initiative is invalid”. Richland Initiative final court ruling 11-22-19

In July 2018 the Antioch City Council adopted a voter initiative sponsored by Richland Communities that approved Richland’s development called “The Ranch”, while at the same time downzoning Oak Hill’s, Zeka’s, and other neighboring properties to just one home per 80 acres. In August 2018, the City Council followed up by adopting a second voter initiative sponsored by environmental groups to limit growth in the Sand Creek Focus Area, the so-called Let Antioch Voters Decide Initiative. Earlier this year, the Court ruled that the City’s adoption of the environmental groups’ initiative was invalid, and ordered the City to put that initiative on the November 2020 ballot. The earlier order also found that Richland’s inclusion of a Development Agreement between Richland and the City for The Ranch development was unlawful and invalid. (See related article).

In the 23-page November 22 ruling, the issue before the Court was whether Richland’s invalid Development Agreement for The Ranch could be “severed” from the initiative to allow the initiative to survive without the unlawful Development Agreement. The Court found Richland’s Development Agreement not to be “volitionally” severable from the rest of the initiative. Because the invalid Development Agreement is not severable from the balance of Richland’s initiative, the bottom line of the Court’s ruling is that the entire Richland Initiative is invalid.

According to the ruling, “The Court of Appeal has described the test for volitional severability as follows: The volitional requirement concerns whether the voters would have adopted the initiative without the invalid provisions.” Because the initiative was adopted by the City Council instead of submitting it to the voters, the Court focused on the “volition” or decision of the City Council in enacting the Richland Initiative. “The Court concludes that it is the volition of the City Council members who voted on the initiative that matters.”

The judge then reviewed the substantial, valuable community benefits promised by Richland in the Development Agreement if it proceeded with The Ranch development. These benefits included at least $1.2 million for improvements to Deer Valley High School, cost free land for a new fire station, land for an East Bay Regional Park trailhead, fees to support Antioch police, and other community benefits. In the absence of the Development Agreement, Richland would not be legally obligated to provide those benefits to the City as part of The Ranch development.

The judge found that Richland’s PowerPoint presentation shown to the City Council, at the meeting where the City Council adopted the initiative, was relevant and persuasive evidence provided by Oak Hill and Zeka.

In that presentation, it showed the Development Agreement included “Communitywide Benefits” such as the $1.2 million for Deer Valley High School facility improvements, and “Public Safety Benefits” such as the annual per home police fee.

The judge determined that “There is no guaranty that a different developer would agree to give the school district as much money as Richland agreed to give, just as there is no guaranty that a different developer would agree to devote 44% of its land to open space and parks, etc.” If the Development Agreement “were not approved, there would be no certainty as to when another willing developer might come along, and no certainty that the new developer would offer the City as good a deal.”

“The totality of the evidence persuades the Court that the Richland Initiative was a package deal, with the City agreeing to certain General Plan and Municipal Code amendments in exchange for the benefits specified in the Development Agreement.”

The judge’s ruling further determined that the initiative “imposed substantial development restrictions on other parts of the Sand Creek Focus Area including those owned by Zeka Ranch and Oak Hill” as part of a package with development of Richland’s The Ranch project. The Court found that those “development restrictions are not volitionally severable.”

Finally, the Court found that the General Plan and Zoning Code amendments that remained in the initiative outside of the Development Agreement could not be considered “standalone benefits independent of the Development Agreement.”

“Why would the City Council have wished to enact these amendments, if the City was not going to receive the benefits of the Development Agreement?” the judge asked rhetorically in his ruling. “This is another factor supporting the Court’s ruling on volitional severability.”

The result of the ruling means Richland must pursue its development through the development process with the City. The ruling also allows both Zeka Ranch and Oak Hill Partners to purse their development projects, as well.

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Richland Initiative final court ruling 11-22-19


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