The Fourth District Court of Appeal has thrown out a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit filed by Riverside residents because of a procedural error.

Because Friends of Riverside's Hills brought California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) challenges along with allegations that the City of Riverside violated the Subdivision Map Act, the map act's requirement for service of a summons within 90 days of the city's decision applied. Friends argued they had to comply only with CEQA procedures, but the court disagreed and blocked the lawsuit.

Friends did successfully defend against a claim for millions of dollars in damages and sanctions sought by landowners, who argued the appeal was frivolous.

On June 13, 2006, the Riverside City Council accepted as complete final tract maps for three subdivisions in La Sierra, located in northwest Riverside. La Sierra has been the scene of growth battles since the 1970s as residents have fought to maintain the area's semi-rural nature. A month after the council's 2006 decision, Friends of Riverside's Hills sued, arguing the city had violated open space protections and mitigation measures required by a 1996 specific plan. The group also argued the city violated the map act.

On September 14, 2006, the city, the subdivision developers and the landowners asked the Riverside County Superior Court to dismiss the lawsuit because Friends had failed to serve a summons within 90 days of the City Council's decision. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Stephen Cunnison granted the request and dismissed the suit.

Friends appealed only the issue of the map act's procedural requirements to the CEQA claims. Friends argued that because the allegations of CEQA violations did not involve the map act, the 90-day deadline for service of a summons should not apply. But the court determined that the CEQA claims and the map act claims were essentially all the same and, therefore, the map act's procedural requirements applied.

"[T]he CEQA cause of action was merely another vehicle for challenging the city's failure to require the applicant to implement open space and other mitigation measures that were part of the project's conditions of approval and of the specific plan," Presiding Justice Manual Ramirez wrote for the Fourth District, Division Two. "Friends not only could have brought this claim under the SMA [subdivision map act] rather than CEQA, it in fact did."

While the appeal was pending, the landowners asked the court to sanction Friends because "any reasonable attorney would agree that the appeal is totally and completely without legal merit." The landowners sought $16 million for loss of market value, $403,000 for out-of-pocket expenses plus $1,248 every day since September 1, 2007, and $27,500 in attorney fees. The court rejected the request because such an award could chill litigants' right to appeal.

"Weighing the chilling effect of sanctions against the issues raised in this appeal, and finding that a reasonable attorney may well have believed the appeal had some merit, we conclude that sanctions are not justified," Justice Ramirez wrote.

The case is Friends of Riverside's Hills v. City of Riverside, No E042724, 08 C.D.O.S. 14458, 2008 DJDAR 17376. The opinion was filed October 24, 2008, and ordered published November 24, 2008.