Petition Alleging California Environmental Quality Act Cause Of Action In Regard To City’s Decision to Approve Tract Maps Was Subject To Service Of Summons Requirement Of The Subdivision Map Act

In Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 4 Dist., Oct. 24, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) cause of action relating to a subdivision is exempt from the service of summons requirement under the Subdivision Map Act (“SMA”), which requires service of summons within 90 days after a public body makes a challenged decision. The Court of Appeal held that CEQA actions concerning a subdivision are not exempt from that requirement.


Friends of Riverside’s Hills (“Friends”) filed a petition to challenge a decision of the City of Riverside (“City”) to approve three tract maps within the Rancho La Sierra Specific Plan Area that lies within the City. Friends claim that City erred when it approved the maps “without requiring the applicant to comply with all conditions of approval and mitigation measures contained in the Specific Plan.” The Specific Plan had been approved in 1996 and included conditions of removal, requirements for natural open space, and mitigation measures relating to open space.

In 1998, City’s Planning Commission approved applications for tentative tract maps submitted by a developer and landowners of La Sierra Lands, which were the lands addressed in the Specific Plan. The City Council accepted the final tract maps as complete on June 13, 2006.

Friends filed its petition on July 14, 2006, asking the trial court to set aside the City’s decision to approve the project. Friends alleged that City violated Public Resources Code 21080(g) because City weakened the conditions of approval regarding natural open space without holding a public hearing and by substituting equivalent conditions,” and that City also violated other Public Resource Code sections by failing to enforce and implement mitigation measures for natural open spaces.

On September 14, 2006, City, the developer, and the landowners filed a motion to dismiss Friends’ petition, claiming that Friends failed to timely serve a summons within 90 days from the City’s decision (of June 13, 2006) as required by SMA Section 66499.37. The trial court dismissed Friends’ petition on those grounds.


Friends asserted that its lawsuit should not have been dismissed because “under CEQA personal jurisdiction is conferred by personal service of the petition.” Before a lawsuit is filed, CEQA requires that “[w]ithin ten days after the petition is filed, the petition and a request to prepare the administrative record must be personally served on the lead agency.”

The City, on the other hand, argued that section 66499.37 of the SMA governs all causes of action that concern a subdivision, even causes of action that allege CEQA violations, and that Friend’s lawsuit was barred when it did not serve the summons within 90 days of the June 13, 2006, City Council decision. The Court of Appeal agreed with City and held that the trial court did not err in dismissing Friends’ petition.

Case law “shows that CEQA causes of action challenging government decisions made under other statutory schemes . . . must comply with the procedural requirements of both CEQA and the other statutory scheme, at least where the two statutory schemes do not conflict with each other.” The general rule states that when there are two statutes relating to the same subject “the more specific one will control unless they can be reconciled.” If the statutes can be reconciled “they must be construed in reference to each other, so as to harmonize the two in such a way that no part of either becomes surplusage.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

Here, the parties admit there is no conflict between the statutory schemes at issue “because the statutes do not have identical mandates addressing the same action.” The service requirements under SMA section 66499.37 “are mandatory and dismissal is mandated for failure to meet the specified deadlines.” SMA requires service of summons on the legislative body that made the challenged decision within 90 days of that decision and nothing in CEQA either prohibits service of summons or otherwise mandates dismissal if summons is not served. The court concluded that SMA section 66499.37 and CEQA can be harmonized and “Friends could easily have complied with the SMA service of summons requirement without running afoul of the CEQA procedures; it simply failed to do so.”

Friends’ argued that its cause of action alleging that City failed to enforce the adopted Specific Plan mitigation measures as a condition of approval for the project and also substituted less effective mitigation measures involved allegations that City violated CEQA, not the SMA. Friends asserted, therefore, that its allegations did not “concern a subdivision.” The court disagreed.

The CEQA cause of action alleges that CEQA was violated “by not including certain mitigation measures, such as provisions for open spaces, in the conditions of approval” when City accepted the final tract maps as complete. The SMA, however, specifically “addresses and authorizes conditions of approval for tract maps.” The court opined that the CEQA cause of action was merely another vehicle for challenging the City’s failure to require the applicant to implement mitigation measures as part of the project’s conditions of approval and of the Specific Plan. The court concluded that “Friends was required to comply with the 90-day summons requirement for the CEQA cause of action, because it both overlapped with the SMA cause of action and could have been (and was) brought under the SMA.”


If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Mona Ebrahimi or Karina Terakura | 916.321.4500