APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Stanislaus County. William A. Mayhew, Judge. (No. 673680).
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[167 Cal.Rptr.3d 344] Law Office of Rose M. Zoia and Rose M. Zoia for Plaintiff and Appellant.
John P. Doering, County Counsel, William Dean Wright and Thomas Boze, Deputy County Counsel, for Defendant and Respondent.
Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, Edward Grutzmacher, Oakland; and Michael L. Lyions, Modesto, for Real Party in Interest and Respondent.
Plaintiff Protect Agricultural Land (PAL) filed a petition for writ of mandate to challenge the decision by the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission (Stanislaus LAFCO) to approve the application submitted by real party in interest City of Ceres (City) for the West Landing Specific Plan Reorganization. PAL alleged the approval of modifications to City's sphere of influence and the approval of the annexation of 960 acres violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000 (Reorganization Act).
[167 Cal.Rptr.3d 345] Defendants Stanislaus LAFCO and City filed a demurrer, contending that (1) Government Code section 56103 requires challenges to a local agency formation commission's (LAFCO) approval of an annexation and a change in a sphere of influence be brought as a " reverse validation action" and (2) PAL failed to comply with the summons and publication procedures required by the statutes governing validation actions— Code of Civil Procedure section 860 et seq. The trial court treated the demurrer as a motion for judgment on the pleadings and granted the motion without leave to amend. PAL filed this appeal.
We interpret section 56103 to mean that lawsuits seeking to set aside (i.e., invalidate) a LAFCO approval of an annexation or a change in a sphere of influence— whether brought under CEQA, the Reorganization Act, or both— are subject to the procedural requirements applicable to reverse validation actions. In this case, PAL failed to comply with those procedural requirements. Therefore, pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 863, dismissal of PAL's action was required " unless good cause for such failure [wa]s shown." The trial court determined that good cause for the failure to comply had not been shown because PAL's legal research into the applicability of the procedural requirements was inadequate. Our review of the appellate record shows the trial court's express and implied findings regarding good cause are supported by substantial evidence.
We therefore affirm the judgment.
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Plaintiff PAL alleges that it (1) is an unincorporated group of citizens who are residents and property owners within Stanislaus County and (2) was formed for the purpose of protecting and preserving the environmental resources, including agricultural resources, located within Stanislaus County.
The subject matter of this litigation is City's proposal to expand its territory to the southwest. The proposed expansion was set forth in the West Landing Specific Plan, a policy document adopted by City to guide the future growth, land use, infrastructure, and public service planning and investment in a 960-acre area that, prior to this litigation, was adjacent to City in an unincorporated part of Stanislaus County. The 960 acres are bounded by Whitmore Avenue on the north, the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way on the east, Service Road on the south, and Ustick Road on the west.
City acted as the lead agency and prepared an environmental impact report (EIR) for the West Landing Specific Plan. In June 2011, the Ceres City Council adopted resolutions certifying the final EIR for the West Landing Specific Plan. The EIR identified significant environmental impacts that could not be eliminated or mitigated to a level of insignificance, including impacts to agricultural land. For example, the EIR stated that (1) the proposal would result in the conversion of approximately 660 acres of farmland and the development of approximately 187 acres of land currently under Williamson Act contracts and (2) there were no feasible mitigation measures that would reduce these impacts to a level of insignificance. The city council adopted a statement of overriding considerations that included a finding that specific economic, legal, social, [167 Cal.Rptr.3d 346] technological and other anticipated benefits of the project outweighed the significant and unavoidable environmental impacts of the project.
The city council also adopted resolutions approving the West Landing Specific Plan and authorizing the submission of an application to Stanislaus LAFCO for the modification of City's sphere of influence  and the annexation of the 960-acre area by City.
After City certified the EIR, adopted the statement of overriding considerations and approved the West Landing Specific Plan, City filed a notice of determination, triggering the 30-day statute of limitations for CEQA challenges to those actions. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21167, subd. (c).) PAL did not pursue a CEQA claim within that limitations period.
City's application to Stanislaus LAFCO requested it to (1) adopt a municipal service review for City, (2) approve the modification to City's sphere of influence, and (3) approve the annexation of the 960 acres to City and simultaneous detachment from the Westport Fire Protection District. For purposes of CEQA, Stanislaus LAFCO acted as a " responsible agency" in connection with the application. (Pub. Resources Code, § 21069.)
Stanislaus LAFCO considered City's application in two parts— the first concerning the municipal service review and sphere of influence modification and the second concerning the proposed annexation.
In February 2012, Stanislaus LAFCO approved the municipal services review and sphere of influence modification and adopted findings regarding the environmental impacts and the statement of overriding considerations, as adopted by the city council.
In March 2012, Stanislaus LAFCO adopted a resolution approving the proposed reorganization and annexation and adopting the findings regarding the environmental impacts and the statement of overriding considerations, as adopted by the city council.
In April 2012, PAL filed a petition for writ of mandate containing two causes of action. The first alleged that Stanislaus LAFCO violated CEQA and the second cause of action alleged Stanislaus LAFCO violate the Reorganization Act. PAL's prayer for relief requested that Stanislaus LAFCO be ordered to set aside and void its approvals of the project and comply with applicable law prior to further consideration of the project. Within 60 days of the filing of its
petition, PAL had not filed proof that it completed the publication and other notice requirements applicable to reverse validation actions.
In August 2012, defendants filed notice of a demurrer and motion to strike that asserted PAL's petition failed to state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action. Defendants contended that, pursuant to section 56103, a lawsuit to set aside the approvals issued by Stanislaus LAFCO must be brought in accordance with the statutes governing validation actions, and that PAL's failure to ...