Timing is Everything: The California Supreme Court Says a Newly Incorporated City Can Refuse to Approve a Final Map

By Janell M. Bogue

The California Supreme Court recently held that in specific situations, a newly incorporated city has greater discretion to reject a final map when the tentative map was approved by the county. This case is City of Goleta v. Superior Court of Santa Barbara County (2006) 40 Cal.4th 270.
In this case, the event timeline is important. After the residents in the future City of Goleta (“City”) began the process of incorporation, a developer (“Sandpiper”) submitted a vesting tentative map (“VTM”) to the County of Santa Barbara (“County”). The County approved the map after the City incorporation was approved by the electorate. The City adopted the County subdivision ordinances as required by Government Code section 57376(a), but it replaced references to the County and the Board of Supervisors with the City and the City Council. Subsequently, the City denied approval of Sandpiper’s final map. Sandpiper sued, and while the trial court granted Sandpiper’s writ petition and ordered the City to approve the final map, the appellate court reversed and Sandpiper appealed to the California Supreme Court.

The California Supreme Court first examined Government Code section 66413.5. It said that in subsection (a), “the Legislature specifically provided that a newly incorporated city must approve a final map where the tentative map has been approved by the county and the final map meets all of the conditions of the tentative map and the requirements of the Act.” But the court continued, and stated that subsection (f) limits the obligation and provides a “safe harbor.” Section 66413.5(f) says that a new city must approve the final map, but only if (1) the application for the VTM was submitted before the first signature on the incorporation petition and (2) the county approved the VTM before the incorporation election. Here, those time constraints were not met, and thus Sandpiper did not fit within the “safe harbor” provision of section 66413.5(f).

Though Sandpiper argued that the replacement of the County with the City in the adopted subdivision ordinances meant that the City surrendered its discretion, the court disagreed. The court said that the replacement meant only that the City kept discretion to disapprove maps approved initially by the County, while the general rule of ministerial approval applied for City approved maps.

Finally, Sandpiper argued that the City was estopped from disapproving the final map. The court noted that Sandpiper had not established the elements of estoppel, and all the evidence showed that the City had long expressed reservations about the project. Though Sandpiper’s project had been exempted from a building moratorium, this was only done because of Government Code section 65858(c)(1) (exempting multi-family housing from moratoria). This exemption should not have led Sandpiper to believe that the City would eventually approve the final map.

Janell Bogue is an associate with Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, environmental and planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.
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