In Protect Agricultural Land v. Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission, 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 80, the court affirmed the requirement that challenges to annexation and sphere of influence decisions by Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCO) must be brought as reverse validation actions.
The case involved the Stanislaus County LAFCO’s approval of an application by the City of Ceres to modify the city’s sphere of influence and to annex 960 acres of farmland, as set forth in the West Landing Specific Plan. The City of Ceres acted as the lead agency under CEQA and prepared an EIR for the Specific Plan. Protect Agricultural Land (PAL), a citizen group, challenged the approval claiming it violated CEQA and the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000 (Reorganization Act). A final LAFCO decision may only be challenged by a validating action under Government Code section 56103 or by a quo warranto proceeding filed by the Attorney General. Section 56103 allows a public agency to test the validity of a LAFCO annexation or sphere of influence determination by filing an in rem validation action within 60 days of the approval. If a public agency does not file an in rem action, under section 51603, any interested individual may challenge the validity of the LAFCO decision following proper notice provided according to Code of Civil Procedure section 863.
Since the Stanislaus County LAFCO did not file an in rem validation action, PAL could challenge the validity of the LAFCO decision under section 56103. However, PAL failed to publish and file proof of summons within 60 days of filing its complaint as required by the Code of Civil Procedure section 863. The court agreed with the Stanislaus County LAFCO and dismissed the case because PAL failed to comply with the requirements of a reverse validation action.
PAL acknowledged that it did not comply with the notice requirements, but argued that it should be excused for showing good cause for noncompliance. The court rejected the good cause argument noting that PAL’s legal research was inadequate as it relied on only one legal treatise. Had PAL done more thorough research, it would have found several cases and other prominent legal treatises that specifically state the need to comply with validation statutes when challenging the validity of an annexation.
The court also found that the reverse validation procedures applied to PAL’s CEQA claim because PAL’s CEQA claim was a challenge to the validity of the Stanislaus County LAFCO’s decision. The court cited Hills for Everyone v. Local Agency Formation Commission (1980) 105 Cal.App.3d 461 as precedent for requiring CEQA claims to comply with the requirements for reverse validation actions provided in Government Code section 56103.
In dismissing both the CEQA and Reorganization Act claims, the court noted that it was not deciding whether PAL had stated a cause of action under CEQA and assuming that PAL had stated a CEQA cause of action, it was not deciding the merits of that claim.
When an annexation or sphere of influence action by a Local Agency Formation Commission is challenged under the Reorganization Act and CEQA, the challenge must be brought as a reverse agency action, which includes compliance with all of the notice requirements of the Code of Civil Procedure section 863. If not, the case will be dismissed before reaching the merits.