By William W. Abbott

Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors (2012) 205 Cal.App.4th 162.

In 1991, the California Legislature amended the Subdivision Map Act to restrict the use of boundary line adjustments by limiting their use to four or fewer adjacent parcels. Government Code Section 66412(d). While intended to deal with the reconfiguration of large ranches without going through the subdivision process, the 1991 amendment made the process of making minor technical adjustments between contiguous parcels unnecessarily more cumbersome then what was really necessary. (Essentially, the use of a nail gun to put in a thumbtack.) Local governments and engineers developed different strategies for working around the amendments. One of those was processing multiple sequential adjustments. 

Napa County addressed this issue in 2009 when the Napa County Board of Supervisors adopted an amendment to its code permitting sequential processing of lot line adjustments where the same parcels were involved, in circumstances in which the prior adjustment was approved and recorded. The County also concluded that such adjustments would be categorically exempt from CEQA.

The Sierra Club filed suit, alleging inconsistency with the Subdivision Map Act and a violation of CEQA. As the litigation moved forward, the County agreed to an extension of the time period for the preparation of the administrative record. The County then filed a demurrer, arguing that the petitioner had failed to serve a summons within the 90 days required by the Subdivision Map Act. The trial court rejected the demurrer on the grounds that the County’s grant of an extension constituted a general appearance. The trial court then ruled in favor of the County.

The Sierra Club appealed. Addressing first the County’s statute of limitations defense, the appellate court first affirmed the lower court ruling that the lawsuit was timely filed, concluding that the general appearance satisfied the service of summons requirement. Turning to the merits, the appellate court concluded that the multiple sequential processing was not an “end around” of the Map Act. Relying in part on the legislative history, the appellate court, in critically examining the adopted language, could not agree with the Sierra Club’s argument that the legislature intended to ban later adjustments of the same parcels. The appellate court also affirmed the County’s conclusion that such adjustments were ministerial, and therefore not subject to CEQA. Building upon earlier cases, the court concluded that although the County may enjoy some elements of discretion when processing a lot line adjustment, the discretion which could be exercised to shape the proposal was not sufficiently meaningful to justify the application of CEQA.

William W. Abbott is a partner 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.