Landowner’s Efforts to Void and Redraw Subdivision Map Fails Under Laches Doctrine

Miller Starr Regalia
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Miller Starr Regalia

The often invoked but rarely successful laches doctrine is an equitable defense when a party unreasonably delays enforcing a right and when granting the relief sought would prejudice the adverse party.  A petition for “exclusion” is an equitable process under California’s Subdivision Map Act, to compel a local agency to redraw or discard a recorded subdivision map, and it is even rarer.  These issues recently collided in Decea v. County of Ventura, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2020) (Case No. B302086), a Second District Court of Appeal case involving a landowner’s attempt to seek a court order declaring void a 1974 parcel map that was prepared and recorded under prior ownership and to restore the prior lot lines of a 1923 map.

The property at issue is located in Lake Sherwood, an unincorporated community in the County of Ventura, whose reservoir and surrounding woods were the location of several Robin Hood films.  The lake’s south shore was subdivided in a 1923 tract map and the resulting parcels sold to various parties.  Five of the parcels, consisting of approximately 1.04 acres of land, were eventually acquired by a landowner—Speirs—who hired a surveyor that obtained and recorded a map in 1974 that depicted the parcels as a single parcel labelled “Parcel A.”

During a County-initiated merger process in 1985 Speirs identified an incorrect lot line and urged the County not to “kick [him] in the teeth” by using the incorrect lot line when they had discretion to fix the problem.  A hearing official responded the County’s “hands [were] tied” because the 1974 map was the official public record but encouraged Speirs to contact his surveyor about submitting a corrected map.  Speirs took no further action.

Parcel A was later sold to another landowner—Decea—who in 2017 decided to subdivide it into two buildable half-acre lots.  Decea requested certificates of compliance for five lots, disputing whether Speirs legally merged those lots into one and contending that Speirs did not consent to the 1974 map recordation, but the County responded that there was only “a single discrete parcel” created by the 1974 map.

Decea then sought to exclude his property from the 1974 map under Government Code section 66499.21 et seq., requesting a court order to direct the County to declare the 1974 parcel map void and to restore the historical lot lines.  The Subdivision Map Act’s exclusion procedure may be used to compel local authorities to redraw or discard a recorded map.  A property owner initiates the procedure by filing a petition for exclusion with the local county surveyor and clerk of the board of supervisors.  The petition must describe the property to be excluded and the reasons for requesting the remedy.  It must include a new map showing how the subdivision’s boundary lines will change if the court grants the relief requested.  The clerk then publishes a notice stating the nature of the petition and the deadline for filing objections.  If the court receives objections it deems “material,” it hears them first.  If the court does not receive objections, it may proceed to hear the petition without further notice.  A court presented with “satisfactory evidence of the necessity of the exclusion” may “order the alteration or vacation of the recorded map” and “enter its decree accordingly.”

The County objected to Decea’s petition and asserted the validity of the 1974 map, pointing to parts of the hearing transcripts indicating Speirs knew officials considered Parcel A one legal lot yet failed to contest the interpretation.  The County asked the court to dismiss the petition under the doctrine of laches.  The trial court granted the County’s request, finding both delay and prejudice based on substantial evidence that Speirs knew the 1974 map contained at least one error he could fix by submitting a corrected parcel map, yet he did not.

Decea argued that the equitable doctrine of laches cannot apply to his petition for exclusion—to void an allegedly defective parcel and compel the recording of his proposed alternative—because the remedy of exclusion is statutory.  The Court of Appeal disagreed and explained that applying laches was appropriate considering Decea sought, and could receive, only equitable redress under the Map Act.  The Court thus affirmed the trial court decision, holding that “[t]he time to address the map’s purported errors passed 35 years ago.  It would be inequitable to awaken the issues now.”

Decea should serve as a reminder to landowners and developers of the importance of promptly addressing identified map errors and of the availability of the exclusion process under the Subdivision Map Act to file a petition to alter or vacate such a map.

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