Subdivision Maps Recorded Before 1893 Do Not Create Legal Parcels Subject To Sale, Lease Or Financing

The California Court of Appeal recently held that antiquated subdivision maps drawn and recorded before 1893 do not create legal parcels of land that are automatically subdividable within the meaning of California’s Subdivision Map Act (Government Code § 66410 et seq.). [Gardner v. County of Sonoma, (2001) 92 Cal. App. 4th 1055.]


The Gardner family owned a number of lots and lot fragments depicted on an early subdivision map that was recorded more than two decades prior to 1893, when California’s first statute regulating subdivision maps took effect. The lots currently owned by the Gardners had been conveyed as a single unit of land since that time, and no previous owners had attempted to establish the lots as a legal subdivision under any available law.

The Gardners asked the County of Sonoma to issue certificates that would have established their property as legal parcels for subdivisions and enabled them to sell, lease or finance them as such. The County refused to do so, finding the antiquated map was drawn without regard to topography, community resources, and community needs, and that recognition of the lots as legal parcels could wreak havoc with land use planning and public safety concerns in County. The Gardners then sought a court order requiring County to issue the certificates.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal agreed with County, and held that California’s Subdivision Map Act did not intend to give legal recognition to subdivision lots, such as the Gardners, described in pre-1893 maps. In its analysis, the Court looked primarily to the underlying purpose for California’s current subdivision law.

The Subdivision Map Act is the primary regulatory tool available to local governments in controlling the design of subdivisions for the benefit of adjacent owners, prospective purchasers, and the public in general. It thus is extremely important for a subdivision map to meet a local agency’s subdivision map requirements, which take into account such matters as land use policies, water supplies, environmental concerns, acreage limitations, land use designation, and the burden on public services.

The antiquated subdivision map at issue in Gardner clearly did not meet current local requirements, the Court said, and even though the Subdivision Map Act contains a “grandfather” clause recognizing the legality of subdivision maps approved under prior versions of the Act, the clause did not apply to the Gardners’ antiquated map, recorded at a time when no subdivision law was in effect. California’s Legislature, “with its strenuous emphasis on local control and approval of subdivisions,” did not intend the grandfather clause to legalize a map recorded when no subdivision statute existed and land use regulation was minimal, the Court stated. Thus, the antiquated map put forth by the Gardners could not be deemed to have created legal parcels automatically subdividable under the state’s current subdivision law, it said.

Buyers in established urban areas often acquire property that was subdivided prior to the enactment of the Subdivision Map Act. Check your local planning departments’ position on this issue before acquiring title. You may be required to apply for a map in order to create legal parcels for development or resale.