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In Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors (2012) 2012 Cal.App. LEXIS 454, the Sierra Club challenged a lot line adjustment ordinance adopted by Napa County, which allowed lot line adjustments under the Subdivision Map Act on parcels that had previously been adjusted, as long as the prior lot line adjustment has been completed and recorded.  The court held that the county’s approval of this provision, which allowed sequential lot line adjustments, was consistent with both the Subdivision Map Act and CEQA.

The court began by considering whether Sierra Club’s petition was time-barred by provisions of the Subdivision Map Act that require a summons be effected within 90 days of the challenged agency decision.  The county demurred on these grounds, and the trial court overruled the demurrer.  On appeal, the court found that, because the county had entered into a stipulation for a court order extending its time to prepare the administrative record pursuant to Public Resources Code section 21167.6, the county had made a general appearance before the court, and had thus waived it ability to challenge irregularities in the service of summons.

On the merits, Sierra Club argued that the county’s ordinance violated section 66412 of the Subdivision Map Act, which limits use of lot line adjustments to four or fewer adjacent parcels, essentially claiming that this provision preempted the county’s ordinance.  The court considered the legislative history of section 66412 and ultimately disagreed with the Sierra Club’s argument that this provision evidenced a legislative intent to ban all sequential lot line adjustments.

Under CEQA, the court held that the lot line adjustments allowed by the county’s ordinance would be ministerial, noting that the county had classified them as such, and that the CEQA Guidelines authorize agencies to make such classifications.  Citing prior case law, the court noted that, in considering an application for a lot line adjustment, the local agency considers only whether the application meets specified criteria, and there is no discretion to impose conditions to mitigate environmental impacts.  The court also noted that the ordinance continued the county’s pre-existing practices, and did not authorize any increased level of development.

Key point:

This case confirms the ministerial nature of lot line adjustments under the Subdivision Map Act, and further acknowledges that the local public agency is the most appropriate entity (as opposed to a challenger or the court) to determine what is a ministerial action under CEQA.  This case also serves as a reminder that, in order to preserve the ability to demur to a complaint based on irregularities in service of the action, the party wishing to file a demurrer must avoid making a prior general appearance, which could arise by taking any action that in some manner recognizes the authority of the court to proceed.  Stipulations to extend the time for record preparation are common in CEQA litigation, and it should be remembered that such a stipulation, which acknowledges the court’s authority and the necessity of an administrative record as a precondition to hearing, amounts to a waiver of the ability to challenge the court’s jurisdiction.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera
For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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