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Environmental & Natural Resources Legal Alert
May 3, 2012              

Sierra Club v. Napa: Sequential Lot Line Adjustments are Consistent with the Subdivision Map Act and are Exempt from CEQA

Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors (April 20, 2012, A130980) ___Cal.App.4th___.

Senate Bill No. 497, enacted into law in 2001, amended the Lot Line Adjustment (LLA) provisions of § 66412 (d) of the Subdivision Map Act. Since that time, the interpretation and implementation of that law has been as varied as the cities and counties that comprise California. Issues regularly debated were (1) whether or not there was a limit to the number of times one could seek an LLA (assuming each application met the requirements of the Map Act) – more than one LLA request over time often referred to as "sequential LLAs" - and (2) whether CEQA applied to LLAs.

In 2009, Napa County updated its LLA ordinance and expressly included sequential LLAs as within broader definition of allowable LLAs. The ordinance also continued the County's existing policy of treating LLAs as ministerial acts not subject to CEQA. The Sierra Club "facially challenged" the ordinance by a petition for writ of mandate, alleging, inter alia, that the ordinance violated the Map Act's limited exemption for LLAs in Section 66412(d) and violated CEQA by classifying LLAs as ministerial. The trial court denied the petition on the merits, ruling that the Map Act was clear on its face and did not bar sequential LLAs, and that LLA approvals were ministerial and not subject to CEQA.

The Sierra Club challenged both of these trial court determinations on appeal. Allen Matkins attorney David Blackwell represented the California Land Surveyors Association in support of the County as the sole amicus curiae on appeal. The key issue was whether or not the ordinance conflicted with Map Act section 66412(d)'s restriction on LLAs to those "between four or fewer existing adjoining parcels." This limitation was added to the Map Act in 2001 via Senate Bill No. 497, and the Sierra Club argued that it was intended to "close a loophole" in the Map Act, and further argued that interpreting Section 66412(d) to allow sequential LLAs would violate the plain reading of the Map Act. The appellate court, like the trial court before it, disagreed, holding that sequential LLAs do not run afoul of any of the LLA criteria in Section 66412(d), and that the legislative history did not reveal an intent to bring LLAs under the Map Act's subdivision framework. The court reasoned that the ordinance "injects meaningful temporal constraints" by first requiring an LLA of four or fewer lots to be approved and the recordation of the deeds reflecting the adjustment lots before a new LLA application can be filed, and that this sequential LLA process comports with the intent of SB 497.

The Sierra Club's argument that the approval of sequential LLAs was a discretionary act subject to CEQA was also rejected by the trial and appellate courts. Ministerial projects are exempt from CEQA requirements. The appellate court paid deference to the County's classification of LLAs processed under its Ordinance as ministerial, and determined that Map Act section 66412(d) "describes a prototypical ministerial approval process."

Finally, the appellate court dismissed the Sierra Club's claims that the ordinance would allow unfettered development within the County, holding that the ordinance "does not enable any development beyond what already is possible through existing land use policies and laws."

This opinion thus recognizes the status of LLAs in the local land use hierarchy, and how claims of "uncontrolled development" resulting from LLA approvals is a fallacy; development is controlled by local General Plans, Specific Plans and Zoning (under Planning & Zoning Law), and not by the local regulations involving LLAs.

 

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