By Glen Hansen

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 743, the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District addressed some of procedural traps that can befall unwary litigants who seek to bring CEQA challenges to local land use decisions including subdivision approval.

In Friends, the petitioner association brought an action against the City of Riverside (“City”) to set aside the City’s approval of a Final Tract Map for a development project. In the first cause of action under CEQA, petitioner alleged the City violated CEQA by: (1) weakening the conditions of approval regarding natural open space without holding a public hearing and by substituting equivalent conditions; and (2) failing to enforce and implement the previously approved mitigation measures regarding natural open space. Petitioner alleged additional causes of action regarding violations of the Subdivision Map Act (“SMA”) (Gov. Code § 66410 et seq.). The petitioner served a copy of the petition in compliance with CEQA.  However, the petitioner did not serve a summons within 90 days after the date of the City’s approval, as is required under the SMA (Govt. Code § 66499.37.) 

The trial court dismissed the petition in its entirety because petitioner did not comply with the service of summons requirement of section 66499.37. On appeal, petitioner only challenged the dismissal of the CEQA cause of action. The appellate court affirmed for two reasons. 

First, the appellate court held that the 90-day service of summons requirement in section 66499.37 of the SMA applies to a petition for writ of mandate alleging a CEQA cause of action, where the decision challenged under CEQA concerns a subdivision under the SMA. The court noted that, in prior decisions, the 90-day statute of limitations resulting from the 90-day filing and service of summons requirements of section 66499.37 was held to apply to all causes of action brought to challenge a local body’s decision under the SMA. The court rejected the petitioner’s argument that a CEQA cause of action should be an exception to that general rule because: (1) CEQA causes of action challenging governmental decisions made under other statutory schemes must comply with the procedural requirements of both CEQA and the other statutory scheme where the two statutory schemes do not conflict with each other; and (2) both CEQA and section 66499.37 can be harmonized because the SMA requires the petitioner to serve the summons on the legislative body within 90 days of the challenged decision, whereas nothing in CEQA prohibits service of the summons or mandates dismissal if the summons is not served.

Second, the Friends court addressed the issue of whether the petitioner’s CEQA cause of action in this particular case was a matter “concerning a subdivision” under the SMA. The court held that it did because it overlapped with the other SMA causes of action in the petition and could have been brought under the SMA. Petitioner’s second cause of action, which was brought under the SMA, alleged that the City “failed to require compliance with the Conditions of Approval,” and directly overlapped with the first cause of action under CEQA, in that they both sought to compel the City to require compliance with the conditions of approval regarding open space. The same was true for the petitioner’s third cause of action under the SMA, which alleged that “[a]ll parties failed to comply with the Subdivision Map Act and Riverside Municipal Code Title 18.” The same was true for the fourth cause of action under the SMA, which alleged that “[t]he Project is inconsistent with the Rancho La Sierra Specific Plan,” because the first cause of action also alleged that the City failed to enforce the mitigation measures adopted as part of the Specific Plan, and thereby violated CEQA. Thus, the first cause of action for violation of CEQA was merely another vehicle for challenging the City’s failure to require the applicant to implement open space and other mitigation measures that were part of the Project’s conditions of approval and of the Specific Plan. The petitioner not only could have brought the first cause of action under the SMA rather than CEQA, but in fact did just that in causes of action two through four.

The appellate court laid the procedural error solely at the feet of the petitioner: 

“Friends could easily have complied with the SMA service of summons requirement without running afoul of the CEQA procedures; it simply failed to do so.… Petitioner could have satisfied the requirements of both statutory schemes without conflict.” 

The Friends case therefore stands as a harsh reminder to CEQA practitioners to carefully consider the additional procedural rules under the SMA when challenging approvals of projects that involve subdivisions. 

Glen Hansen is a senior associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP. For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or 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.