First District Determines Local Land Use Ordinance Does Not Violate Map Act and Properly Characterized Certain Approvals as Ministerial Acts Exempt from CEQA.
May 4th, 2012 by John Wheat
Sierra Club v. Napa County Bd. of Supervisors (1st Dist. April 20, 2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. A130980)
Sierra Club challenged an ordinance adopted by the Napa County Board of Supervisors clarifying lot line adjustments. Sierra Club argued the ordinance violated the Subdivision Map Act (Map Act) and CEQA. The appellate court disagreed, rejecting Sierra Club’s facial attack on the ordinance and upholding the county’s interpretation that lot line adjustments could be ministerial approvals and therefore exempt from CEQA.
Background and Procedure
In 1976, amendments to section 66412 of the Map Act exempted from the act any lot line adjustment between two or more adjacent parcels. Thus, land could be taken from one parcel and added to an adjacent parcel, but no additional parcels could be created. This exemption was later restricted to four or fewer existing adjoining parcels. This amendment also required lot line adjustments to be approved by the local agency or advisory agency. Further, the agency’s review was limited to a determination of whether the parcels resulting from an adjustment conformed with the local general plan, any applicable specific or coastal plan, and any zoning or building ordinances.
In 2002, Napa County revised its local ordinance governing lot line adjustments to reflect the amendments limiting the scope of section 66412. The revised ordinance also prohibited lot line adjustments that transformed non-building parcels into buildable ones. The ordinance did not comment on whether sequential adjustments affecting four or fewer parcels would be permitted.
Around 2007, Napa County addressed this issue, as it had pending applications from one owner for lot line adjustments affecting 16 contiguous parcels. Each application affected only four parcels, but were sequential in that a lot adjusted under one application was further adjusted under a following application. Napa County determined some counties prohibited this approach to lot line adjustments while others required a waiting period between each application. A final option would be to allow all of the application to be processed without a waiting period. The Board directed that an ordinance be prepared addressing sequential applications for lot line adjustments.
In 2009, a draft ordinance was presented to the Board that distinguished between major and minor lot line adjustments. Major adjustments depended on discretionary approval subject to CEQA, while minor adjustments were considered ministerial and outside CEQA’s purview. The final ordinance adopted by the county continued the existing administrative practice of allowing lot line adjustments impacting four or fewer parcels to re-adjust lots included in a prior application if the prior adjustments had been completed and recorded. Approval of these adjustments remained characterized as ministerial acts not subject to CEQA. The Board determined approval of the ordinance itself was exempt from CEQA based on a class 5 categorical exemption and the “general rule” exempting actions with no possibility of adverse impact to the environment (CEQA Guidelines, § 15061(b)(3)).
Sierra Club challenged the approval of the ordinance, claiming it violated the Map Act’s lot line adjustment exemption and violated the Map Act and CEQA by classifying adjustments as ministerial. Sierra Club requested that the county stipulate to a court order extending the time to prepare the administrative record. The county agreed and the court ordered the deadline extended. The county later argued that Sierra Club failed to effect summons within 90 days as required by section 66499.37 of the Map Act. The trial court held that the county’s stipulation to extend time to prepare the administrative record was a general appearance, and therefore, the county waived any irregularities in the service of summons. The trial court rejected Sierra Club’s other challenges to the ordinance, and Sierra Club appealed.
Sierra Club’s Action Not Time-Barred
The appellate court agreed with the trial court that Sierra Club’s action was not time-barred. The appellate court determined that the county made a general appearance when it agreed to the stipulation extending the time to prepare the administrative record. California Code of Civil Procedure section 1014 lists acts that constitute an appearance, but the appellate court noted this list is not exclusive. The determining factor is whether the defendant takes a part in the action and in some manner recognizes the authority of the court to proceed. In this case, the county clearly acknowledged the trial court’s authority to proceed when it stipulated to the order granting Sierra Club an extension. As a result of this appearance, the county waived all irregularities in service.
Compliance with the Map Act
Sierra Club argued the county’s ordinance violated the Map Act by circumventing its limited exemption for lot line adjustments. The appellate court interpreted this as an argument that section 66412 preempted the local ordinance, or that the local ordinance facially conflicted with this section.
The appellate court noted the difficult burden Sierra Club faced in making its facial challenge to legislation. Local land use regulations conflict with general laws and are void if the local legislation duplicates, contradicts, or enters an area fully occupied by the general law. The court determined Napa County’s ordinance did not conflict with section 66412, as the ordinance did not conflict with any of the criteria established by the Map Act for procedural exclusions of lot line adjustments.
Further, the court rejected Sierra Club’s argument that the county’s ordinance would reopen the loopholes closed by the amendments to section 66412. Specifically, the ordinance did not allow an unlimited number of lot lines to be adjusted at the same time. The ordinance required landowners to obtain approval of adjustments of no more than four adjoining lots at one time and record the deeds reflecting those adjustments before another application could be processed. The court determined that if the legislature had intended to remove all sequential lot line adjustments from the section 66412 exemption, it could have used language to make this intention clear.
Application of CEQA to Sequential Lot Line Adjustments Under County Ordinance
Sierra Club argued that approval of sequential lot line adjustments is a discretionary action subject to CEQA. Approval of discretionary projects requires the exercise of judgment or deliberation, while ministerial projects involve little or no personal judgment by the relevant public official. The public official merely applies the law to the facts presented.
The ordinance classified lot line adjustments as ministerial and not subject to CEQA except where such adjustments required approval of a variance or were processed concurrently with a related application for a use permit or other discretionary approval. Otherwise, if an application complies with 12 specific standards under the ordinance, a public official must accept the application. The court held fixed approval standards left officials with no ability to exercise discretion to reject or shape the project in any way. Therefore, approvals of lot line adjustments under the ordinance that met these criteria were appropriately classified as ministerial.
This case offers an important civil procedure reminder that if a party makes a general appearance before a court, it waives the ability to later challenge sufficiency of service. Stipulating to a court order extending the deadline for filing the administrative record in a CEQA action was characterized as a general appearance in this case. In addition, the case demonstrates the heavy burden petitioners face when attempting to argue a local land use regulation conflicts with a general law. Finally, the case reiterates past precedent distinguishing discretionary acts subject to CEQA and ministerial acts falling outside the jurisdiction of the act.