Failure to Comply With LAFCO Procedural Requirements Proves Fatal to CEQA Suit

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In Protect Agricultural Land v. Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission (filed January 28, 2014) (“Protect Agricultural Land”), the Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed judgment on the pleadings in favor of the Stanislaus County Local Agency Formation Commission (“LAFCO”), and squarely held that all “lawsuits seeking to set aside a LAFCO approval of an annexation or change in sphere of influence—whether brought under CEQA, the Reorganization Act, or both—are subject to the procedural requirements applicable to reverse validation actions.”  (Slip Opin. at 2.)

The Protect Agricultural Land decision is interesting for at least two reasons.  First, it identifies another area where CEQA practitioners must be mindful of procedural requirements found in other statutes.  (See, e.g., Friends of Riverside’s Hills v. City of Riverside (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 743 (Subdivision Map Act).)  Second, it adds to the growing body of case law outlining what does, and does not, constitute excusable neglect under Code of Civil Procedure section 473.

Here, plaintiff-appellant Protect Agricultural Land (“PAL”) filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging Stanislaus County LAFCO’s approval of the City of Ceres’ application for the West Landing Specific Plan Reorganization, which modified the City’s sphere of influence and annexed 960 acres.  PAL alleged that the approval violated both CEQA and the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000.  Defendants Stanislaus LAFCO and the City filed a demurrer seeking dismissal on the ground that the action did not comply with statutory procedural requirements.  The trial court found the demurrer untimely, but treated it as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, and granted the motion in favor of defendants without leave to amend.  The appellate court affirmed.

Citing Code of Civil Procedure section 863, the court held that all actions to test the validity of a LAFCO annexation determination are required to be brought as reverse validation actions, which entail certain procedural requirements.  Specifically, a summons must be in the prescribed form, directed to all persons interested in the matter and the public agency, and published for the period and in the manner required by statute.  Because PAL did not comply with those statutory requirements, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit.

The court then found that PAL’s failure to comply with LAFCO publication and summons requirements also barred plaintiff’s CEQA claims.  PAL argued that there is no law requiring CEQA challenges to be brought pursuant to the validation statutes.  The court reasoned, however, that

even if a challenge to a validation action is based on CEQA, it is still an action challenging the validity of the LAFCO determination.  Thus, the action is effectively a reverse validation action and must follow the procedural requirements of Section 863.

Additionally, the court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that PAL did not demonstrate good cause for its failure to comply with Section 863, which the Supreme Court has determined is governed by the same test used to establish good cause under Code of Civil Procedure 473.  Specifically, PAL’s counsel did not show excusable neglect in the form of an “honest and reasonable mistake of law on a complex and debatable issue . . . .”  (Slip opin. at 11.)  A declaration by PAL’s counsel stated that, prior to filing the action, the attorney consulted the chapter on LAFCOs of an outdated secondary guide.  Citing the most recent version of that guide, a Google search, other secondary sources, and case law, the court affirmed that counsel’s research was inadequate and did not support a finding of good cause.

Topics:  CEQA, Environmental Liability, Environmental Policies

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Environmental Updates, Zoning, Planning & Land Use Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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