By William W. Abbott and Janell M. Bogue

The 2003 California Supreme Court decision of Gardner v. County of Sonoma (2003) 29 Cal.4th 990 left unanswered the status of pre-1929 subdivision maps. The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District in Witt Home Ranch, Inc. v. County of Sonoma (July 29, 2008) 2008 Cal. App. Lexis 1160 has now tackled one aspect of this issue in the context of a 1915 subdivision map.

The Witt Home case involves the Houx Subdivision, approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors (“Board”) and recorded in 1915. Notwithstanding the recorded map, the property was held and managed as a single unit of land. Witt Home Ranch (“Ranch”), the current owners of the property, sought a certificate of compliance pursuant to Government Code section 66499.35(a), for each of the twenty-five lots. The Sonoma County Permit and Resources Management Department (“PRMD”) denied the certificates, and the Ranch appealed. The Board determined that the 1915 map was not a legal subdivision and denied the request for certificates of compliance. The applicant subsequently sued.

In Gardner, the Supreme Court reviewed a similar subdivision dispute from Sonoma County and determined that an 1865 recorded map preceded California’s first subdivision statute adopted in 1893. The recording of that map had no legal effect because without something more than the recording itself, such as a conveyance, there was no subdivision of land. Therefore, the recorded map on its own did not establish a legal subdivision for purposes of the grandfather clause. The Gardner court acknowledged but did not rule on the question of whether or not pre-1929 maps operated to legally divide property[1]


The Ranch argued that the Subdivision Map Act (“SMA”) in 1915 authorized cities and counties to regulate “design” and “improvement”, thus potentially validating a subdivision map under the “grandfather statute” (Gov Code, § 66499.30(d).)  This code section provides:


Subdivisions (a), (b), and (c) do not apply to any parcel or parcels of a subdivision offered for sale or lease, contracted for sale or lease, or sold or leased in compliance with or exempt from any law (including a local ordinance), regulating the design and improvement of subdivisions in effect at the time the subdivision was established. [italics added]


The appellate court first reviewed the timeline of the grandfather clause. The Ranch argued that legislative history should be used to interpret the clause and that the statute, as it appears today, merely codified the inclusive language used prior to 1943. The pre-1943 versions recognized maps that were recorded in compliance with the laws as they existed at that time. However, in 1943, the more modern version appeared with the “design and improvement” language. The court assumed that the Legislature purposely chose this language to narrow the scope of the grandfather clause. The court held that since the language of the statute was clear, that there was no reason to examine the legislative history materials. “Resort to legislative history is proper only if the statutory language is ambiguous–that is, is susceptible to more than one reasonable construction.” Therefore, the court was bound to determine the meaning of the grandfather clause on the basis of its plain language.


After reviewing the plain language of the statute and applying it to the Ranch’s map, the court held that the 1915 laws did not regulate the design and improvement of subdivisions. The court said that the local government had no authority to impose constraints on configuration of the subdivision, the number of lots, the minimum size, or on installation of drainage and sewer improvements. Instead, the landowner determined those factors and the local government was limited to ensuring that those features were depicted on the map. Further, the court said that in 1915, the local government’s authority to approve the map was limited to ensuring that the map was accurate and prepared by a licensed professional. While it was noted that the local government could require the subdivider to make roads of a certain width, the court held that this was insufficient to satisfy the “design and improvement” requirements of the grandfather clause. Therefore, the court held that since the 1915 laws did not regulate the design and improvement of subdivisions, the map could not be recognized as valid under the grandfather clause.


The court also noted that public policy supported its conclusion. Holding that the 1915 map was valid would authorize development without regard to current regulations, mitigation fees, and without giving notice and an opportunity to be heard to neighboring residents and interested citizens. The purpose of the grandfather clause is to protect those who detrimentally relied upon an earlier version of the law. Here, the court could not find any detrimental reliance on the recorded map. The Ranch held and managed the property as a single unit for over 70 years and never attempted to take advantage of the recorded map before this instance. Therefore, the court affirmed the Board’s decision in denying the certificates of compliance.


A number of other cases involving older maps are presently in litigation. Whether all of the court decisions will fall in line with Witt Ranch remains to be seen.


Bill Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, and Janell Bogue is an associate for the firm. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, environmental and planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP 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.

[1] 1929 was the year that the first statute authorizing city and county substantive regulation of land divisions was enacted.