Witt Home Ranch, Inc. v. County of Sonoma (July 29, 2008, Case No. A118911 __ Cal.App.4th ___

Plaintiff Witt Home Ranch, Inc. (“Ranch”) argued that a 1915 subdivision map qualified under a statutory grandfather provision, section 66499.30(d) of the Government Code, which recognizes antiquated subdivision maps that were recorded in compliance with “[l]aws . . . regulating the design and improvement of subdivisions” in effect at the time of the map’s recordation. The Ranch also argued that the County’s conduct during the application process violated its constitutional right to due process. The California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court ruling that the laws governing subdivision maps in 1915 did not regulate the “design and improvement of subdivisions,” as required by the grandfather clause, and that the County did not violate the Ranch’s right to due process.

Background

The Ranch is the owner of a large parcel of undeveloped land in Sonoma County (“the County”). In 1915, a map that subdivided the parcel into 25 lots was approved by the County Board of Supervisors (“the Board”) and recorded, but the map was never implemented through sale of the individual lots. Rather, the lots had always been united as a single parcel with a single owner. In 2005, the Ranch applied to the County for certification of the individual lots on the basis of the 1915 map, but the Board ruled that the map was no longer valid.

The Ranch subsequently filed a petition for writ of mandamus and a civil complaint against the County. The petition challenged the Board’s failure to issue certificates of compliance for the 25 lots shown on the map and sought a writ requiring their issuance. The complaint also alleged a cause of action for violation of due process against a deputy county counsel, who advised the Board in connection with the Ranch matter. The trial court issued an order concluding that the lots described in the map were not covered by the grandfather clause of the Act and that there had been no violation of due process in connection with the County’s consideration of the Ranch’s application. The Ranch appealed the judgment.

The Validity of the Subdivision Map Act

In evaluating the Ranch’s claim that the 1915 subdivision map qualified under a statutory grandfather provision, section 66499.30(d), the Court of Appeal first analyzed the history of subdivision map acts, and found that California statutes did not attempt to regulate the subdivision of property prior to 1893. The 1893 legislation, which for the first time required the recording of a subdivision map before subdivided lots could be sold, was gradually expanded until, in 1929, the first modern land use regulation was enacted.

The Court of Appeal noted that the Act’s grandfather clause specifies which subdivision maps approved and recorded pursuant to earlier legislation will be recognized as valid, despite their failure to comply with current legal requirements. For example, it recognized antiquated subdivision maps that were recorded in compliance with “[l]aws . . . regulating the design and improvement of subdivisions” in effect at the time of the maps’ recordation.

The Court of Appeal then analyzed the ruling in Gardner v. County of Sonoma (2003) 29 Cal.4th 990, which is one of the few cases that have interpreted the Act’s grandfather clause. In that case, the California Supreme Court approved the County’s refusal to extend section 66499.30(d) to cover a subdivision map recorded in 1865. The Court in Gardner held that the 1865 recording of the subdivision map had no legal effect on the lots described, since no state statute authorized the establishment of subdivided parcels before 1893. The California Supreme Court also noted that issuing certificates of compliance based on the 1865 map could frustrate the Act’s objectives, because it would disregard applicable general and specific plans, and ignore potential environmental and public health consequences, among other reasons.

After concluding that the legislative history of the grandfather clause was not dispositive, the Court of Appeal turned to the meaning of the critical language of the clause, “regulating the design and improvement of subdivisions,” and the history and substance of the subdivision map laws in effect in 1915, when the map was recorded. The Court opined that although the statutes in effect in 1915 required the landowner to depict and identify lots, highways, and property set aside for public dedication, they did not limit or otherwise regulate the number, siting, minimum size, or design of lots into which a parcel could be divided, and they did not require the installation of transportation, drainage, or sewage improvements, or other infrastructures. They also did not grant to local governments the authority to impose such requirements.

In addition, the Court of Appeal rejected the Ranch’s argument that the grant of authority to the local governing body to “approve” the maps constituted the regulation of design and improvement of subdivisions. The Court found that the 1915 statutes simply limited the local governing body to ensuring that the map was accurate, was prepared by a licensed professional, and otherwise complied with statutory requirements. “[T]he statutes did not even mention infrastructure other than roads, let along require the installation of such infrastructure.” Because subdivision (d) of section 66499.30 requires regulation of both design and improvement, the Court of Appeal concluded that this is sufficient to disqualify the statutes regulating the map from qualifying under section 66499.30.

Due Process

The Ranch also argued that, for three principal reasons, it was denied due process during the County’s consideration of its application for certificates of compliance with respect to the map lots. First, it claimed that the Board’s policy of refusing to recognize all maps recorded prior to 1919 constituted a “de facto land use ordinance” that was enacted without following proper legislative procedures. The Court of Appeal found that the Board was merely carrying out a ministerial statutory interpretation, rather than legislation.

Second, the Ranch contended that the Board’s conclusion that the map was inconsistent with modern County land use regulation was based on matters outside the hearing record. The Court of Appeal found no substantial evidence to support the inference that improper conduct occurred.

Finally, the Ranch argued that the conduct of a deputy county counsel in advising the Board was improper. The Court reviewed two prior California Court of Appeal decisions, and concluded that neither were applicable because there was no evidence that the deputy county counsel ever acted as an advocate in connection with the Ranch’s proceeding.