On August 17, 2020, in Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2020) (Case Nos. C087759 and C087778), the Third District Court of Appeal addressed several novel legal claims arising from the County of Placer’s partial abandonment of public easement rights in a road connecting two adjacent residential subdivisions near Lake Tahoe.

Background

In the early 2000s the County approved two residential developments, Martis Camp, consisting of 650 lots on 2,200 acres, and the Retreat at Northstar, consisting of lots for 18 custom homes on 31 acres. As originally planned, the connection between the two developments—known as Mill Site Road—was intended for emergency access and public transit vehicles only. And when the developments were approved in 2005, the approval documents assumed there would be no private vehicle trips between Martis Camp and the Retreat or the Northstar community beyond. Martis Camp residents wishing to drive to Northstar would use State Route 267. Sometime in or around 2010, however, Martis Camp residents began using the Mill Site Road connection as a shortcut to Northstar.

In 2011 and 2012, Retreat homeowners objected to Martis Camp residents’ use of Mill Site Road. The director of the County’s Community Development Resource Agency responded by letters informing the Retreat homeowners that County staff had investigated the issues and concluded no code enforcement action was warranted and that Martis Camp residents had easement rights to use Mill Site Road as owners of property abutting a public roadway.

In 2014, after efforts to have the County stop Martis Camp residents from using the emergency access road failed, the Retreat owners asked the County Board of Supervisors to abandon the public’s right to use Mill Site Road. In 2015, the Board approved a partial abandonment, thereby restricting use of Mill Site Road to Retreat property owners and emergency and transit vehicles, consistent with what was described and analyzed in the prior planning and environmental documents.

Various lawsuits followed, raising several causes of action including that the County violated the Ralph M. Brown Act open meeting law by changing the conditions of approval for the projects without a properly noticed meeting, that the County violated the statutory requirements for abandonment of a public road, and that the County substantially impaired the Martis Camp residents’ abutters rights to Mill Site Road, thereby reducing the market value of their properties without just compensation.

Brown Act

The plaintiffs claimed that the County violated the Brown Act by fundamentally altering conditions of approval for the Martis Camp and Retreat projects without prior notice to the public. According to the plaintiffs, the Community Development Resource Agency director’s enforcement decisions in 2011 and 2012 established that the project conditions of approval do not prohibit Martis Camp residents from using Mill Site Road as a means of ingress/egress and that by overruling the director’s prior enforcement decisions, the Board changed the conditions of approval. And because the public agenda did not provide notice those conditions would be changed, the Board’s actions violated the Brown Act.

The Court held that because the conditions of approval always limited use of the emergency access road to emergency/transit uses, the act of formally overruling the director’s prior enforcement letters was not a “distinct item of business” that needed to be included on the agenda. And the Court noted that even where a plaintiff has established the existence of a Brown Act violation such violation will not automatically invalidate the action taken unless the plaintiff shows the violation caused prejudice.

Road Abandonment

The plaintiffs claimed the County’s abandonment of Mill Site Road violated the California Streets and Highways Code because there was no substantial evidence showing that the road was both unnecessary for public use and that abandonment was in the public interest.

The Court reasoned that evidence Martis Camp residents were using Mill Site Road as a “convenient”—but unauthorized—connection between the two developments did not preclude the Board from finding Mill Site Road was not a necessary part of the public transportation network. The Court thus agreed that the Board’s finding that Martis Camp residents’ use of Mill Site Road was unnecessary because the public system of roads was not planned, designed, or approved to accommodate that use were reasonable and supported by substantial evidence in the record. And the Court also agreed that the Board’s finding that abandonment would benefit the public by conforming the road’s use to planning and environmental documents, protecting the integrity of the traffic management system, and relieving the County of the burden of road and drainage maintenance were supported by substantial evidence.

Inverse Condemnation

The plaintiffs also claimed that because they were granted a nonexclusive easement over Mill Site Road, from the dedication of the subdivision’s roads, the County substantially impaired their abutter’s rights in approving the abandonment, thereby reducing the market value of their properties without just compensation.

The Court pointed out that none of the Martis Camp residents directly abut Mill Site Road and rejected the argument that to the extent they were granted a nonexclusive easement for ingress and egress over all of the subdivision roads that they therefore have abutters rights. The “operative question” in a takings claim based on an alleged loss of abutter’s rights is whether the action substantially impaired the property owner’s right of access to the general system of public streets. While the abutting property owner has a right of access and can recover compensation when there has been a substantial impairment of that right, a nonabutting property owner does not have any special right to damages merely because access to a conveniently located street has been denied. The court held, the fact that Martis Camp residents may have been granted a separate easement to use the subdivision’s streets does not alter this longstanding inverse condemnation principle.