The California Supreme Court has reversed an appellate court ruling that regional park and open-space districts said would have greatly diminished their ability to acquire and manage land.

In its ruling, the state's top court said that a regional park and open-space district can dispose of property if it has not officially declared – such as by adopting a resolution – that the property is "dedicated" for use as a park and open space. The Fourth District Court of Appeal had ruled that property was automatically dedicated for such use upon park and open-space district acquisition.

The distinction is crucial because a regional park and open-space district cannot dispose of a dedicated property without the consent of the district's voters or the state Legislature and two-thirds of the district board of directors.

"The ability to delay a board vote to ‘actually dedicate' acquired property allows districts to engage in long-range strategic planning, and permits such districts to acquire property when it becomes available and to hold it in a ‘land bank' for possible future use as park and open space, even if such use, for a variety of reasons, is not yet feasible," Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous state Supreme Court.

Park and open-space districts had argued that requiring the approval of voters or lawmakers for every land-disposal issue, no matter how small, would have presented an unnecessary and new hurdle in acquiring land, planning for its use and managing it (see CP&DR Legal Digest, April 2008).

The case was brought in 2003 by Wildomar resident Gerald Ste. Marie. Ste. Marie, who's not an attorney but represented himself throughout the litigation, challenged a plan by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District to sell 80 of 161 acres in Wildomar that the district acquired in 1995 through a purchase and a gift from a landowner. The county Board of Supervisors, which oversees the district, decided to sell the property on Clinton Keith Road after voters rejected a proposed fee to fund the construction and operation of a park on the land. In 2003, the county signed an option agreement to sell the 80 acres to the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District, which wanted to build a new campus on the land. In his suit, Ste. Marie contended that his community lacked sufficient parkland and voters should have decided whether the district could sell the land.

In making his case, Ste. Marie cited Public Resources Code § 5655, which states that all property acquired by a regional park and open space-district is immediately, upon acquisition, "dedicated and set apart for" park and open space purposes, as defined by law. Under § 5540, a regional park and open-space district may not convey its interest in real property "actually dedicated and used for park and open space" without the approval of voters, or both houses of the state Legislature and two-thirds of the district's board of directors.

A trial court judge and appellant court had agreed with Ste. Marie's reading of the statute and blocked the proposed land sale.

In reversing the earlier decisions, the state Supreme Court ruled, "[A]lthough the same word ["dedicated"] is used in both statutes, the Legislature did not use it in the same way. Section 5565 states that land is ‘dedicated,' whereas § 5540 imposes conveyance restrictions on land that is ‘actually dedicated.'" The court said the Legislature's use of the word "actually" should not be ignored.

The court cited the legislative history of a 1985 amendment to § 5540. Ste. Marie contended that the amendment only involved a district's ability to dedicate easements. But in its ruling, the court cited a legislative analysis pointing to a broader interpretation: to "clarify a park district's authority to dedicate easements without substantially changing [its] current dedication authority for other property."

"This," wrote Werdegar, "suggests the Legislature understood that under the then-extant state of the law, a park district's ‘current dedication authority' for real property involved some affirmative act, such as adoption of a resolution by the board of directors, and did not happen automatically merely upon passage of legal title from a seller to a district."

In addition, the court noted, California's eight regional park and open-space districts have always interpreted the term "actually dedicated" to require an affirmative act by a governing board.

"Such a long-standing interpretation of a statutory scheme by the government entities involved, established not by a single staff member but memorialized in their master plans or by a resolution adopted by their boards of directors, is entitled to great weight, and we defer to it," Werdegar wrote.

Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster praised the court's decision, saying, "The court saw clearly that progressive counties must have the flexibility to develop creative plans for parks, open space and other resources for their communities."

Seven of the state's regional park and open space districts asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the lower courts. Because the districts typically buy land on the open market, they must respond quickly when property becomes available and decide on the details of usage and park boundaries later. (The Los Angeles County Open Space and Recreation District was not a party to the litigation because it merely serves as a funding conduit for other entities.)

Mt. San Jacinto Community College District representatives said the district remains interested in acquiring the site.

The Case:
Ste. Marie v. Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District, No. S159319, 09 C.D.O.S. 5875, 2009 DJDAR 6919. Filed May 14, 2009.

The Lawyers:
For Ste. Marie: Gerald Ste. Marie, in pro. per.
For the district: Dennis Peter Maio, Reed Smith, (415) 659- 5942.