Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sequential Lot Line Adjustments Deemed Ministerial Acts Under New Napa County Ordinance

Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors (April 20, 2012) No. A130980, available at CourtWebsite

In this case, the Sierra Club challenged Napa County’s approval of a lot line adjustment ordinance, arguing that the ordinance violated the law because it allowed for the ministerial approval of “sequential lot line adjustments” -- meaning additional adjustments performed after an initial lot line adjustment. Sierra Club contended that such lot line adjustments were discretionary acts within the meaning of CEQA, and thus the ordinance could have potentially allowed applicants to circumvent CEQA’s environmental review process. However, the court disagreed with the Sierra Club’s arguments, and instead held that the approval of a lot line adjustment under the ordinance was a ministerial act, and thus it was not subject to CEQA.

The court noted that the State CEQA Guidelines consider a local public agency as the most appropriate entity to determine what is ministerial based on its analysis of its own laws and regulations and that those agencies should make such determinations. (CEQA Guidelines sections 15022, subd. (a)(1)(B) and 15268, subds. (a) and (c).) The court also noted that the “touchstone” for discretionary acts subject to CEQA is “whether the approval process involved allows the government to shape a project in any way which could respond to any of the concerns which might be identified in an [EIR].” It further noted that a local government is foreclosed from influencing a project if the applicant can compel approval without changes in the design that might alleviate adverse environmental consequences.

The court considered that the Subdivision Map Act exempts certain lot line adjustments from discretionary review, and in keeping with this, it found that the procedure for approving lot line adjustments under the ordinance was ministerial unless a variance or use permit was involved. More specifically, it found that the approval process only involved determining conformity with a set of rules, but provided “no ability to exercise discretion to mitigate environmental impacts.” Finding that the ordinance also would not enable development beyond what was possible through prior policies and laws, the court concluded that approval of a lot line adjustment under the ordinance was ministerial and thus was not subject to CEQA.