By Leslie Z Walker

In Ste. Marie v. Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District (2009) 46 Cal.4th 282, the Supreme Court resolved an apparent conflict between Public Resources Code sections 5540 and 5565 in favor of a park district’s ability to hold real property without dedicating it to park or open space purposes.

The Riverside District, a regional park district formed under Section 5541.2, (the “District”) acquired 161 acres of land in Riverside County in 1995. In 2003, the District entered into an option agreement with the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District, to convey 80 of the 161 acres for the construction of a new community college campus (“Wildomar Property”).  The District had not adopted a resolution formally dedicating the property as a park or open space and plaintiff argued that the failure to do so violated Section 5540, which requires approval by a majority of the voters in the district or an act of the Legislature.

Section 5540 provides:

An easement or other interest in real property may be dedicated for park or open-space purposes, or both, by the adoption of a resolution by the board of directors, and any interest so dedicated may be conveyed only as provided in this section.

. . . A district may not validly convey any interest in any real property actually dedicated and used for park or open space, or both, purposes without the consent of a majority of the voters of the district voting at a special election called by the board and held for that purpose. [But] . . . consent need not first be obtained for a conveyance of any real property if the Legislature, by concurrent resolution, authorizes a conveyance after a resolution of intention has been adopted by at least two-thirds vote of the board of directors of the district, specifically describing the property to be conveyed.

Section 5565 however provides:

The legal title to all property acquired by the district under the provisions of this article shall immediately and by operation of law vest in the district, and shall be held by the district in trust for, and is dedicated and set apart for, the uses and purposes set forth in this article.

Plaintiff argued that under Section 5565, the entire 161 acres of the Wildomar Property was dedicated to park or open space or both upon acquisition, and thus, under Section 5540 could not be sold without a special election or an act of the Legislature. The District however argued that “actual dedication” for the purposes of Section 5540 differed from “dedication” for the purposes of Section 5565. Plaintiff argued that only after property is dedicated by a resolution of the board of directors, must approval by the district or the legislature is obtained prior to conveyance.  The Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiff.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that “dedicated” for the purposes of Section 5565 and “actually dedicated” for the purposes of Section 5540, had two different meanings.  The Supreme Court found that reading the statutes as a whole, examining their legislative history, and reviewing the interpretations of the sections by the District, the District’s position was supported.  Interpreting Section 5565 to imply that all land acquired by the District was immediately dedicated to park purposes such that the land could not be conveyed without a majority vote, or an act of the legislature, would be inconsistent with the provision in Section 5540 explaining that an interest in real property may be dedicated for park or open space purposes by the adoption of a resolution by the board of directors. The court explained that under Section 5565, land acquired by the District must be set aside and may not be used for non-park purposes. In effect, the property is held in a land bank until the District decides to actually dedicate it to park or open space.  Once the district makes this decision, the property may only be conveyed upon an act of the legislature or a majority vote of the district.

Leslie Z. Walker is an 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.