In Abernathy Valley, Inc. v. County of Solano, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 1 Dist., April 17, 2009), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a county properly denied a developer’s application for recordation of a certificate of compliance with the Subdivision Map Act (“Map Act”). The Court of Appeal concluded that the county properly denied the application because the Map Act’s grandfather provision was not satisfied based on the attempted recordation by the developer. As such the county was not required to grant an unconditional or conditional certificate.
In 1909, a 250 acre parcel of property was recorded with the Solano County Recorder titled the “Wm. Pierce Subdivision No. 1” (“Pierce Map”). The 250 acres were subdivided into 25 lots, about 10 acres each. In 2002, 12 contiguous lots were sold to Abernathy Valley, Inc. (“Abernathy”).
In 2003, Abernathy applied to the county for a certificate of compliance under the Map Act for one of the subdivided lots. Abernathy was informed by Solano County’s (“County”) Department of Environmental Management that its application could not be granted because the Pierce Map did not comply with the laws in effect in 1909 so it did not qualify under the grandfather provision of the current Map Act. The matter was then referred to the County’s Planning Commission and in 2006, the Planning Commission voted to issue a certificate of compliance. Upon review, the County’s Board of Supervisors reversed the Planning Commission’s decision and denied the certificate of compliance.
Abernathy filed a petition for writ of mandate. The trial court found that the Pierce Map complied with the law in effect when it was recorded and was grandfathered under the provisions of the Map Act. As such, a certificate of compliance should be issued. The County appealed.
The Court of Appeal began with an examination of the grandfather provision of the Map Act. The court began with a summary of the legal history and evolution of the Map Act and its equivalent predecessors. Notably, as succeeding versions of the Map Act were passed by the California Legislature, local agencies were given greater authority to exert substantive control over the division of property. Nonetheless, the Legislature was cognizant of difficulties faced by landowners who purchased land under one version of the Map Act, only to find that the law had changed. Consequently, every Map Act adopted by the Legislature since 1907 has included a grandfather provision that serves to exempt maps from the current legal requirements if they were in compliance with the law when they were originally filed.
Next, the Court of Appeal considered whether the Map Act grandfather clause operated to exempt Abernathy from current requirements because the Pierce Map was properly recorded under the laws of 1909. The court cited specific language in the grandfather provision which states that the current Map Act does not prohibit the sale, lease or financing of parcels on maps not in compliance with the current Map Act as long as the maps complied with laws “regulating the design and improvement of subdivisions in effect at the time the subdivision was established.” (Emphasis added.) The court explained that the Map Act in effect in 1909 did not include language regulating the design and improvement of subdivisions; thus, even though the Pierce Map was properly recorded in 1909, the law at that time did not include design and improvement regulations. Without such regulations in1909, the Pierce Map was exempt from design and improvement regulations in the existing Map Act.
Abernathy argued that an application of the current Map Act to the Pierce Map would have an impermissible retroactive effect. The Court of Appeal noted that there could not be a retroactive effect if a law regulating design and improvement was not in effect at the time the Pierce Map was recorded. The court also pointed to the state’s interest “to encourage and facilitate orderly community development, coordinate planning with the community pattern established by local authorities, and assure property improvements are made, so that the area does not become an undue burden on the taxpayer.” Allowing Abernathy and other developers the ability to develop their land based on the previous versions of the Map Act that do not include design and improvement regulations would enervate the purpose the current Map Act.
Finally, Abernathy argued that the County only had one of two options: grant an unconditional certificate of compliance, or grant a conditional certificate of compliance. The Court of Appeal disagreed. Though on its face, the Map Act appears to provide only one of the two options, the court offered an alternative interpretation of the statutory language thereby characterizing the language as ambiguous. The court pointed to decisions by other appellate courts and the California Supreme Court which allowed for the denial of certificates of compliance by counties to support its position that applications for certification could be denied.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeal found that the Pierce Map was not grandfathered in under the Map Act, such a holding did not have a retroactive effect, and the County was entitled to deny the application for certificate of compliance.
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