The Sixth District Court of Appeal has allowed a Santa Clara County landowner to exclude his property from a subdivision approved in 1970. The exclusion was permitted by a rarely used provision of the Subdivision Map Act (Government Code §§ 66499.21-66499.29), the court held.

The ruling came in a "fact intensive" case that involved multiple landowners, the validity of a 33-year-old parcel map, the passage of three decades, and revisions to state and local land use regulations during that time.

In 1970, John Weis sought permission to divide his 10-acre parcel in San Martin, a rural community between Gilroy and Morgan Hill. He intended to keep one parcel of 3.5 acres for himself. He planned to sell a newly created 3.9-acre parcel to neighboring dairymen John Pereira and Edwin Vargas, and sell a newly created 2.8-acre parcel to Frank Pacheco, another neighboring dairy owner.

In April 1970, the county conditionally approved Weis’s parcel map application. Upon approving the map, however, the county also combined the holdings of Pereira and Vargas, who already owned two parcels totaling 12 acres, with their new parcel into one large parcel. The county did the same for Pacheco, who already owned 10.75 acres on two parcels. The dairy owners were apparently unaware that they then owned one parcel apiece instead of three lots apiece.

Time passed, Weis and Pacheco died, the county changed the zoning from 1-acre minimums to 20-acre minimum lot sizes and later to 5-acre minimums. In 1999, Richard van’t Rood purchased the Pacheco property. While buying the property, van’t Rood received a title report indicating the existence of three legal lots. Van’t Rood filed an application for a lot-line adjustment, but the county concluded only one lot existed and rejected the application. Van’t Rood then applied for certificates of compliance to prove the validity of the lots, but he withdrew the application. Van’t Rood and Pereira filed a lawsuit instead.

The county presented a wide variety of defenses: The landowners had not exhausted their administrative remedies; the lawsuit was filed too late; the 1970 parcel map was valid; the landowners consented to the 1970 map; the landowners’ consent was not required by statute in 1970; issuance of title insurance on separately described property and separate property tax assessments were irrelevant. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Jack Komar ruled for the county. He ruled that Weis was the authorized agent of the other landowners and merged their parcels as a result of the 1970 parcel map. Judge Komar also ruled that there was no necessity to exclude the pre-existing parcels from the 1970 map and the county’s objections were reasonable.

Only van’t Rood appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Sixth District overturned the lower court. The appellate court ruled that the dairymen had not authorized Weis to act on their behalf. Because the dairymen had not consented, the merger was not a voluntary one. And because the county had not provided notice to the dairymen, the merger was not a legal involuntary merger either, the court held.

The court dealt at length with the question of whether or not Weis was the agent for his neighbors. The trial court ruled that Weis was the property owners’ agent because they had authorized Weis to do whatever was "reasonably necessary" to obtain the county’s approval of the land division so they could purchase the land. But the appellate court ruled otherwise.

"In our view, nothing in the 1970 contract provision directing Weis to complete the ‘lot split procedure’ can be construed as a grant of authority to effect a merger of Pacheco’s pre-existing parcels or to deal with those properties in any other fashion," Justice William Wunderlich wrote for the court. "Moreover, we find nothing in that provision that would warrant Weis in believing he had such authority."

Weis’s sales contract with Pereira and Vargas was even less specific, the court determined.

The lack of an agency relationship between Weis and the other property owners meant that the 1970 parcel map was not valid as a voluntary merger. At the time, the county did not provide notice to any landowner other than Weis, so the map "is not valid as an involuntary merger because Pereira/Vargas and Pacheco were not afforded constitutionally required procedural safeguards," the court concluded.

The court then considered the statutory requirements for excluding land from a subdivision, namely the existence of evidence proving the necessity of exclusion and the lack of reasonable objection.

The necessity, the court ruled, was twofold: The 1970 parcel map stripped the property owners of the benefits of owning separate parcels. Second, the 1970 map was not valid. Exercising the exclusion provision appeared to be the only remedy, the court ruled.

As for objection, the court rejected the county’s arguments, which were based largely on revised zoning and subdivision regulations. "The zoning at the time of the 1970 land division was 1-acre minimum. Changes in zoning since that time do not constitute a reasonable basis for objection to exclusion," Wunderlich wrote.

The court ruled not only for van’t Rood, but also extended its ruling to the property of Pereira and Vargas even though they were not part of the appeal.

The Case:
Van’t Rood v. County of Santa Clara, No. H023716, 03 C.D.O.S. 10052, 2003 DJDAR 12603. Filed November 20, 2003.

The Lawyers:
For van’t Rood: Craig Bassett, (408) 779-0007.
For the county: David E. Kahn, county counsel’s office, (408) 299-5900.