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Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors et al

April 20, 2012


Trial Court: Napa County Superior Court Trial Judge: Hon. Francisca P. Tisher (Napa County Super. Ct. No. 26-51193)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reardon, J.


In 2009 respondent Napa County Board of Supervisors*fn1 adopted clarifying lot line adjustment Ordinance No. 1331 (Ordinance). Subject to provisos, sequential lot line adjustments are included within the definition of "lot line adjustment." (Napa County Code, § 17.02.360.) Appellant Sierra Club has facially challenged the Ordinance as violative of both the Subdivision Map Act*fn2 (Map Act or act) and the California Environmental Quality Act*fn3 (CEQA). We hold that the provisions of the Ordinance allowing sequential lot line adjustments are consistent with the Map Act's exclusion of lot line adjustments from the requirements of the act. Further, since the Ordinance spells out a ministerial lot line adjustment approval process, the Ordinance is exempt from CEQA purview. Finally, we reject respondents' claim that appellant's action is time-barred. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment.


A. History of Lot Line Adjustment Provisions under the Map Act

In 1976 the Legislature amended the Map Act to exempt from the procedures of the act any lot line adjustment between two or more adjacent parcels, where the land taken from one parcel was added to an adjacent parcel but no additional parcels were thereby created, and provided the lot line adjustment was approved by the local agency. (§ 66412, as amended by Stats. 1976, ch. 92, § 1, p. 150.) Prior to that time, some local jurisdictions required that a parcel map be filed before a conveyance could be made to effect a lot line adjustment. The amendment eliminated the need to file a parcel map for minor adjustments to lot lines between adjacent parcels. (Dept. of Real Estate, Enrolled Bill Rep. on Assem. Bill No. 2381 (1975-1976 Reg. Sess.) Mar. 26, 1976.) The legislation was also described as allowing a " 'friendly neighbor' [lot line] adjustment without going through procedures provided in the map act . . . . " (Sen. Local Gov. Com., Staff Analysis on Assem. Bill No. 2381, as amended Jan 15, 1976.)

Fifteen years later, the Legislature enacted a bill that restricted the scope of the exemption to lot line adjustments "between four or fewer existing adjoining parcels," with the same proviso that a greater number of parcels than originally existed is not thereby created. (§ 66412, subd. (d) (§ 66412(d)).) The statute further provides that the lot line adjustment must be approved by the local agency or advisory agency, and the agency's review and approval shall be limited "to a determination of whether or not the parcels resulting from the lot line adjustment will conform to the local general plan, any applicable specific plan, any applicable coastal plan, and zoning and building ordinances." (Ibid.)

B. History Of Napa Ordinances Governing Lot Line Adjustments

In 2002 the County revised its local ordinance to coincide with the changes set forth in the amended section 66412(d), specifically reflecting that lot line adjustments involving four or fewer adjoining parcels were exempt from the Map Act. The ordinance also prohibited lot line adjustments that transformed nonbuilding parcels into buildable ones, as determined by parcel size, shape, geographic features, legal restrictions and other unspecified factors. The ordinance was silent on whether sequential adjustments affecting four or fewer parcels would be permitted.

Around December 2007, the County planning director solicited direction from the Board concerning whether sequential lot line adjustments should be permitted, and if so, to what degree. At the time there were pending applications from one owner for lot line adjustments affecting 16 contiguous parcels, in which each application only affected four parcels but were sequential in that a lot adjusted under one application was further adjusted under a sequential application. A survey of other county practices revealed that one county prohibited sequential lot line adjustments outright and another allowed them with a waiting period between each sequential application. Another option would allow sequential adjustments outright without delay. At the time, there were less than 100 instances countywide in which a single owner owned more than four contiguous parcels, but that ownership affected nearly 100,000 acres. The director recommended an ordinance allowing the processing of successive applications, but with a waiting period or delay of six to eight weeks between applications during which time the first reconfiguration would be recorded. The Board accepted the recommendation and directed staff to prepare an ordinance.

In 2008 the County received lot line adjustment applications from Calness Vintners affecting a total of six parcels located within the Agricultural Preserve Zoning District. The Town of Yountville objected to the lot line adjustments, complaining that the adjustment of parcels adjacent to its boundaries appeared to set the stage for future residential development that would reduce agricultural use and raise other potential environmental impacts. At least one property owner appealed. At the hearing, the Board asked staff to prepare an agenda item enabling it to reconsider its position on sequential lot line adjustments specifically, and the approval process generally.

In May 2009 a draft ordinance was presented to the Board. The draft distinguished between "major" lot line adjustments dependent on discretionary approval subject to CEQA, and "minor" adjustments treated as ministerial and thus outside CEQA's purview. Sequential lot line adjustments and adjustments requiring a variance would be considered "major," as would those entirely relocating an existing parcel, or seeking to enlarge a parcel to more than 10 acres.*fn4 "Sequential lot line adjustment" was defined as any readjustment of a parcel which had been previously adjusted in the past five years. As well, the draft ordinance revised the definition of "buildability" to provide further guidance as to what was a "buildable" lot eligible for adjustment.

At the hearing, the Board grappled with how to distinguish between major and minor lot line adjustments. One supervisor put it this way: "I think there is a sequential lot line adjustment that is used to subvert--to get around CEQA and that's what we . . . want to include as a major lot line adjustment, but how you distinguish that from the tractor turn around and the other adjustment that is sometimes . . . needed . . . ." The Board directed staff to develop a draft ordinance in concert with stakeholders representing a variety of interests. Four meetings were held over the summer, resulting in a substantially revised ordinance. Gone was the distinction between major and minor lot line adjustments. Additionally, all adjustments were deemed ministerial except those requiring a variance or processed concurrently with a discretionary permit. As well, the ordinance revised the definition of "buildability" and continued to authorize sequential lot line adjustments.*fn5

The revised ordinance went to the planning commission in October 2009, with the commission recommending Board approval. During the hearing, the chairperson expressed concern that although the ordinance did not allow for the creation of new parcels, "maybe you're modifying something that is gonna lead to more development. And I struggle with that one philosophically . . . . [W]hat are we really doing here?"

The Board adopted the Ordinance in December 2009, with an effective date of January 7, 2010. The approvals asserted that the Ordinance was exempt from CEQA based on a class 5 categorical exemption*fn6 and general rule.*fn7 At the hearing, questions again arose as to the ministerial-discretionary distinction, particularly where there are ministerial lot line adjustments proposed concurrently with discretionary approvals. The planning director acknowledged that "if someone wants to game the system and has the time to invest in a long process of sequential applications," an applicant could "get around this."

The Ordinance as adopted continued the County's existing administrative practice of allowing lot line adjustments impacting four or fewer parcels to readjust lots included in a prior application, provided the prior adjustments had been completed and recorded. So, too, the new Ordinance continued existing policy and practice such that line adjustments are ministerial acts not subject to CEQA.

C. Litigation

Sierra Club challenged the Ordinance by a petition for writ of mandate, alleging (1) violation of the Map Act's limited lot line adjustment exemption; (2) violation of the Map Act and CEQA due to classifying all lot line adjustment approvals as ministerial; (3) violation of CEQA's prohibition on ...

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