In a case addressing important issues affecting local agencies and landowners (disclaimer:  I represented the County of Napa in the trial court and on appeal), the First District (Division 4) Court of Appeal on April 20, 2012 filed its published opinion affirming a judgment upholding the County’s clarifying lot line adjustment ordinance (Ord. No. 1331) against facial challenges by the Sierra Club under the Subdivision Map Act and CEQA.  Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors, et al. (4/20/12) 205 Cal.App.4th 162, Case No. A130980.  The Court stated:  “We hold that the provisions of the Ordinance allowing sequential lot line adjustments are consistent with the Map Act’s exclusion of lot line adjustments from the requirements of the act.  Further, since the Ordinance spells out a ministerial lot line adjustment approval process, the Ordinance is exempt from CEQA purview.”

After detailing the histories of the Map Act’s statutory exclusion for lot line adjustments (Gov. Code, § 66412(d)) and the County’s local ordinances governing lot line adjustments, the Court observed:  “The Ordinance as adopted continued the County’s existing administrative practice of allowing lot line adjustments impacting four or fewer parcels to readjust lots included in a prior application, provided the prior adjustments had been completed and recorded.  So, too, the new Ordinance continued existing policy and practice such that [lot] line adjustments are ministerial acts not subject to CEQA.”

In rejecting the Sierra Club’s argument that Ord. No. 1331 was preempted by and conflicted with § 66412(d)’s exclusion, the Court analyzed “the plain, clear and unambiguous language of the statut[ory] [exclusion],” concluding [t]he Ordinance’s inclusion of sequential lot line adjustments within the definition of a “lot line adjustment” does not run afoul of any of these conditions and hence should likewise be exempt from the Map Act.  Sequential lot line adjustments are only allowed in cases where a prior adjustment involving four or fewer adjoining parcels has been completed and approved; no new parcels have been created; and deeds reflecting the adjustment have been recorded prior to any sequential lot line application being filed.”

Taking a look at the legislative history at the Sierra Club’s urging and “in an abundance of caution,” the Court noted “there were a number of concerns with unchecked land regulation through inappropriate lot line adjustments that circumvented state and local review,” but found that the Ordinance “injects meaningful temporal constraints on large scale lot line adjustments.”  It further stated:

[W]e do not divine an intent to bring all sequential lot line adjustments within the Map Act’s ambit.  The Ordinance does not allow an endless stream of lots to be adjusted at one time, nor does it allow a nonbuildable parcel to become buildable through the adjustment process.  The requirements that a landowner must obtain approval of adjustments of no more than four adjoining lots at one time, then record the deeds reflecting those adjusted lots before filing and processing another application, serve the purpose of deterring simultaneous adjustment of unlimited parcels, while still fostering the benefits served by a simple lot line adjustment process.

Finally, the Court rejected the Sierra Club’s CEQA arguments, upholding the County’s determination (and trial court’s ruling) that its lot line adjustment approval process is ministerial and thus exempt from CEQA; “[a]pplications that comply with 12 specified standards are deemed to conform to the general plan, any specific plan, and County zoning and building ordinances, and must be approved.”  The County’s consistent treatment and classification of this process as ministerial and CEQA–exempt was also entitled to deference.  As observed by the Court:

[T]he Map Act exempts from discretionary reviews, exactions and conditions those lot line adjustments that fit the specifications of section 66412(d).  Local agency review is expressly limited to determining whether the resulting lots will conform to the local general plan, any applicable specific or coastal plan, and building and zoning ordinances.  (Ibid.)  Section 66412 describes a prototypical ministerial approval process, and indeed approval of a lot line adjustment application has been characterized as involving “only a ministerial decision,” as contrasted with a subdivision proposal.”  [Citation.]  In other words, “the regulatory function of the approving agency is strictly circumscribed by the legislature in a lot line adjustment, with very little authority as compared to the agency’s function and authority in connection with a subdivision.”  (Citing San Dieguito Partnership v. City of San Diego (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 748, 760.)

Since Ord. No. 1331’s procedure involves only “fixed approval standards  delineat[ing] objective criteria or measures which merely require the agency official to apply the local law … to the facts as presented in a given lot line adjustment application” it is a ministerial process exempt from CEQA.  The Court rejected the Sierra Club’s attempted reliance on Coastal Act authority as legally and factually inapposite.  In upholding County’s adoption of its Ordinance exempt under CEQA’s “common sense” exemptions, the Court noted the Ordinance codified an existing, legal practice, and “[did] not enable any development beyond what already is possible through existing land use policies and zoning laws.”