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County of Los Angeles v. City of Los Angeles

March 14, 2013


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. John A. Torribio, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BS124959)

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


Reversed and remanded with directions.

This matter involves the City of Los Angeles' (City) attempt to install a sewer line outside of its territorial limits in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County (County). The County sought a writ of mandate and declaratory relief against the City to halt construction of the proposed sewer line. The trial court granted the County's writ petition, enjoining the City from proceeding without first obtaining the County's consent or a judicial determination of the terms and conditions and location for the use of the County street. We conclude the trial court misinterpreted the applicable statutory framework and employed the wrong standard of review. Accordingly, we reverse and remand with directions.


Sewage from coastal areas of the City are pumped to the Hyperion Treatment Plant in Playa Del Rey via the Venice Pumping Plant. The Venice Pumping Plant is the largest wastewater pumping plant in the City and its existing 48-inch diameter force main sewer line can only handle about 60 percent of the flows coming from the plant. The 48-inch sewer pipe has been in continuous operation since it was built in 1958 because it is the only feasible way to convey sewage flows to the Hyperion Treatment Plant. If flows into the Venice Pumping Plant exceed flows out of the plant, there is a risk that wastewater will overflow directly into Ballona Lagoon. This nearly happened during heavy storms in 1994-1995 and 2004-2005.

In an effort to address the maintenance needs of the existing 48-inch pipeline and provide additional capacity, the City proposed to install a new 54-inch diameter sewer pipe running under Via Marina from the Venice Pump Plant (Via Marina route). The Via Marina route would run primarily under city streets, but a small portion of it would run underneath public streets and a public parking lot located in an unincorporated area of the County. The City considered several routes for the new pipeline, including one that ran solely under city streets (Pacific Avenue route) and one that ran along the beach. Due to environmental concerns relating to the beach route, the Pacific Avenue route and the Via Marina route were the only two options seriously considered by the City. The city council ultimately approved construction of the sewer pipeline along the Via Marina route on January 12, 2010. Although it appears the County was aware of the City's plans throughout the proceedings, the County never agreed to them.

As a result, the County filed a petition for writ of mandate on February 16, 2010, alleging violations of Public Utilities Code sections 10101-10105*fn1 and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as well as a complaint for declaratory relief. The County alleged the City failed to seek its approval as required under section 10103 to construct the pipeline or seek a judicial determination of its rights under section 10104. The County alleged that the Pacific Avenue route was the environmentally superior route and would have the least impact. A first amended petition was filed on July 8, 2010. The City demurred on the ground that sections 10103 and 10104 did not apply because it properly exercised its police power to construct the sewer pipeline outside of city limits. The City also argued that section 10105 permitted the City to construct the sewer pipeline along the Via Marina route because it was necessary and convenient. The trial court overruled the demurrer.

Following extensive briefing and argument, the trial court granted the County's petition for writ of mandate by order dated July 28, 2011. While the trial court rejected the County's CEQA challenge, it found the City violated the Public Utilities Code when it failed to obtain the County's permission to use the Via Marina route or seek a judicial determination about the project. The City timely appealed.


On appeal, the City contends it may locate a sewer line under county land pursuant to its police powers and sections 10101 to 10105 of the Public Utilities Code. While we are not persuaded that the City has absolute authority to pursue such an extraterritorial incursion, we conclude that section 10105 permits the City to locate its sewer lines under county land where it is a necessary or convenient part of the proposed works.

The City first relies on Southern Cal. Gas Company v. City of L.A. (1958) 50 Cal.2d 713 (Southern Cal. Gas) to argue that its police powers grant it absolute authority to extend its sewer line into county territory. In Southern Cal. Gas, the Supreme Court explained, "the power of a city to provide sewage disposal services is one of a city's most important government powers 'and' is one of the few powers it may exercise outside of its territorial limits without express authorization." (Id. at pp. 717-718.) Contrary to the City's position, Southern Cal. Gas does not override or contradict the Public Utilities Code. Indeed, it is easily harmonized with sections 10101 to 10105. As discussed below, the Public Utilities Code allows a city to locate sewage disposal services outside of its jurisdictional limits without express authorization, subject either to judicial determination under section 10104 or the necessary or convenient exception articulated in section 10105, depending on whether the sewer is to be located under the land of another municipality or in unincorporated land, respectively. The Southern Cal. Gas court did not address these sections of the Public Utilities Code and was not presented with this factual scenario.

We therefore consider the duties and powers granted to the City by the Public Utilities Code to approve the Via Marina route. In the course of our analysis, we also consider a trial court's duties and powers in reviewing the City's ...

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