california cannabis marijuana development
Development agreements are a unique process.

This is the second post in our three-part series on California development agreements. In our first post we provided an overview of the use (and misuse) of development agreements in the cannabis industry. This post breaks down the basics of development agreement laws.

California’s development agreement statutes are located in Government Code sections 65864 – 65869.5. According to the legislative findings and declarations, the lack of certainty in the approval of development projects can result in a waste of resources, escalate the cost of housing and other development to the consumer, and discourage investment in and commitment to comprehensive planning which would make maximum efficient utilization of resources at the least economic cost to the public. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65864(a).

Providing assurance to development project applications that, upon approval of a project, the applicant may proceed in accordance with existing policies, rules and regulations, and subject to conditions of approval, strengthens the public planning process, encourages private participation in comprehensive planning, and reduces the economic costs of development. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65864(b). In other words, the California State Legislature has determined that providing certainty and predictability in the development process is good for everyone.

Government Code section 65865(a) provides that anyone with a legal or equitable interest in real property may enter into a development agreement with a city or county for the development of the property.

“Development” is not defined in the development agreement statutes, but “development project” is defined in a subsequent chapter as any project undertaken for the purpose of development, including a project involving the issuance of a permit for construction or reconstruction, but not a permit to operate. Cal. Gov’t Code § 66000. Accordingly, a cannabis business that obtains permits for tenant improvements would fall under this definition, but a development agreement would likely not be appropriate where a cannabis business enters a turn-key facility that requires no construction. In practice, this does not seem to be the case, and we’ve seen cities require development agreements where no construction is contemplated.

The development agreement process begins with the local agency’s procedures for development agreements. If none exist, a city or county must adopt procedures upon the request of an applicant, at the applicant’s expense. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65865(c).

The development agreement statutes provide minimum standards for local procedures and requirements, including periodic review of the agreements at least once every twelve months, specification of the duration of the agreement, the permitted uses of the property, the density or intensity of use, the maximum height and size of proposed buildings, and provisions for reservation or dedication of land for public purposes. Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 65865.1-65865.2

A development agreement is a legislative act that must be approved by ordinance and is subject to referendum. Cal. Gov. Code § 65867.5(a). A noticed public hearing by both the planning agency and by the city council are required before a development agreement is approved. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 65867. A development agreement cannot be approved unless the legislative body finds that the provisions of the agreement are consistent with the general plan and any applicable specific plan. Cal. Gov. Code, § 65867.5(b). Like all other ordinances, the ordinance approving the development agreement must go through a two-reading process, with at least a five-day intervening period. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 36934. A development agreement cannot legally take effect until after the 30-day period for a referendum expires. See Cal. Elect. Code § 9141; Referendum Committee v. City of Hermosa Beach, 184 Cal. App. 3d 152 (1986); Midway Orchards v. County of Butte, 220 Cal. App. 3d 765 (1990).

In practice, all of this means that the development agreement approval process takes a substantial amount of time. First, the developer and local government need to negotiate essential terms. Once the terms have been negotiated, the agreement is placed on the planning commission calendar for hearing, followed by two separate city council meetings. Only after the referendum period has expired can the agreement become effective. In a best case scenario, this process may take 90 days. It often takes much longer.

Development agreements in California are rarely challenged, and when challenged, development agreements are usually upheld because the statutes are liberally construed to encompass agreements that substantially comply with their specific terms and conditions and achieve their essential objectives. Santa Margarita Area Residents Together v. San Luis Obispo County (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 221, 228.

However, given the popularity of use of development agreements in the California cannabis industry, we anticipate seeing an increase in legal challenges, especially where the agreements are mandatory, require substantial fees, have short terms, and lack any connection with construction.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series regarding key terms to fight for in development agreement negotiations related to California cannabis use.