This is the third post in our three-part series on development agreements in California. In our first post we provide an overview of the use (and misuse) of development agreements in the cannabis industry. The second post breaks down the basics of development agreement laws. Here, we will discuss the key terms to include and what to watch out for when negotiating a development agreement with a public agency.
As we’ve explained, California’s development agreement laws were enacted to provide assurances to developers faced with uncertainty in government approval processes for complex and long-term development projects. A development agreement should provide developers with assurances that the developer will see a return on investment by providing vested rights to engage in a particular use on a property. The rights are locked in so that if local laws change in the future (e.g., the voters or legislative body prohibit a particular use), the uses permitted in the agreement can continue for the remaining term of the agreement.
Accordingly, one of the fundamental terms of a development agreement is its duration. Commonly, development agreements in the non-cannabis context provide vested rights for a period of ten to twenty years. Properly building out a facility tailored for commercial cannabis uses may cost millions to tens of millions of dollars. If the term of a development agreement is only one to five years (as many California public agencies are proposing), a developer will not likely recoup the value of his or her investment. Imagine investing $15 million into a state-of-the-art cultivation and manufacturing facility, only to be prohibited from engaging in commercial cannabis activity one year down the road. Don’t go in for a short-term agreement!
Another key term of a development agreement is the description of permitted uses at the property. This clause should be given careful attention, and must be drafted to ensure that all of the contemplated uses of the property are explicitly spelled out. Stating “commercial cannabis activity” without referring to specific categories or license types will lead to confusion and potential problems. If the developer wants to engage in manufacturing, cultivation, and distribution, for example, then all of those uses should be described with as much specificity as possible to ensure that there is no question as to what the public agency authorized.
Many developers want to include uses that the local jurisdiction has not yet authorized. For example, a local jurisdiction may currently allow cultivation and manufacturing, but no retail use. A developer might want to engage in retail use at some point down the road, and therefore want to include retail in the permitted use clause. However, while a developer can commit to uses more restrictive than those set forth in the zoning ordinance, a development agreement may not allow uses or create exceptions to use restrictions beyond those allowed in the zoning code; to do so requires a rezoning or amendment to the zoning ordinance. Neighbors in Support of Appropriate Land Use v County of Tuolumne (2007) 157 Cal. App. 4th 997, 1015. Once the zoning code is amended, the developer can apply to amend the development agreement accordingly.
Another fundamental aspect of a development agreement is the provision of vested rights to the developer. A “vested right” is a right to proceed with construction or other land use activity despite an intervening change in the law. See Avco Community Developers, Inc. v South Coast Reg’l Comm’n (1976) 17 C3d 785. Obtaining vested rights is essentially the entire point of a development agreement. However, we have seen some cities attempt to expressly prohibit developers from obtaining a vested right to engage in commercial cannabis activity. A development agreement should explicitly grant vested rights to the developer, and the vesting should not be conditioned on unreasonable or unattainable benchmarks.
Notice and Cure Period
Development agreements should provide developers with an adequate notice and cure period to enable the developer to remedy any problems and maintain its rights under the agreement before the public agency has the right to terminate. Vested rights under a development agreement are a valuable asset to the property, and developers (and their lenders, if applicable) need to have an opportunity to cure any potential defect and remain in good standing with the public agency to protect the value of the property.
A development agreement should provide developers with the right, but not the obligation, to develop and use a property. Similarly, a development agreement should not require the developer to pay fees for a use it does not pursue. Many development agreements we have seen purport to require developers to pay fees to the public agency even when the cannabis uses are not actually pursued by the developer.
Some public agencies require developers to include a construction schedule in the development agreement. If the public agency insists on such a provision, make sure that the proposed schedule provides maximum discretion and control to the developer, is realistic and attainable, and does not penalize developer for failing to reach certain construction milestones. Construction is riddled with unforeseeable delays, which means there is a strong chance of running afoul of the development agreement terms or having to amend the development agreement if a strict construction schedule is spelled out in the agreement.
This post is not exhaustive, and you should consult with an experienced cannabis real estate attorney before negotiating a development agreement related to this highly dynamic industry in California.