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Physical Division of Property Does Not Necessarily Equate to Division Under the Subdivision Map Act

Save Mount Diablo v. Contra Costa County involved the question of whether an imminent domain taking which physically splits an existing parcel into several non-adjacent pieces constitutes a subdivision of the original parcel under the Subdivision Map Act, thus allowing a would-be developer to forego the often onerous requirements of the Subdivision Map Act.

 

The property in question consisted of a large undeveloped tract off Vasco Road in Eastern Contra Costa County. Historically, the tract had been recorded as a single parcel and used for agricultural purposes, but in the mid-1990s the Contra Costa Water District (“District”) acquired two narrow intersecting strips of land by eminent domain for an underground pipeline and to relocate Vasco Road, respectively. The District’s acquisition of the strips in fee left a remaining property consisting of four irregularly shaped parts, each physically separated from the other parts by one of the strips owned by the District.

 

Nunn, the property owner who had purchased the property after the District’s acquisition of the strips, first attempted to subdivide the land using the parcel map process outlined in the Subdivision Map Act. After those efforts proved unsuccessful, Nunn changed course and instead sought a certificate of compliance from the County. While the County initially denied the request at the planning staff level, the matter was brought before the Planning Commission, which reversed the staff’s decision. The County Board of Supervisors eventually agreed with the Planning Commission and issued four certificates of compliance (i.e., one for each physically separated portion of the property) certifying that the four newly created parcels complied with the Subdivision Map Act.

 

Save Mount Diablo (“SMD”) filed suit, petitioning the Court for a Writ of Mandate requiring the County to set aside the four certificates of compliance. The trial court granted SMD’s petition and the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, affirmed. The Court first examined the purpose of, and procedures mandated under, the Subdivision Map Act’s requirements for creation of a new legal parcel. Next, the Court considered Nunn’s main argument, that the District’s physical division of the Property by acquiring the strips traversing the Property constituted a “division” under the act. While Nunn contended that the District had effectively divided the Property because the result was four non-contiguous “parcels,” the Court disagreed.

 

While the Court agreed that the District’s acquisition of the strips physically divided the Property, such that a person would need to traverse the District’s property in order to travel from one portion of the Property to another, the physical division of the property by imminent domain did not constitute a division of the Property under the Subdivision Map Act. On this issue, the Court found that a physical division of property was not determinative, but that the key issue was whether the newly created parcels complied with the Subdivision Map Act. The Court noted that a division within the meaning of the Subdivision Map Act is not established merely because parts of a property do not touch. In reaching its holding, the Court looked a California Attorney General opinion which advanced the notion that the term “contiguous” could be used to not only denote two things which are in physical contact, but could also be used in this context describe two things which are “nearby.” The Court ultimately held that despite being separated by strips running across the Property, the portions of the Property were still contiguous and, therefore, no division had taken place.

 

The takeaway from this case: The Court was likely influenced by equitable considerations, as evidenced by the reference to Nunn’s predecessor’s receipt of almost $1 million from the District to compensate for the taking of the two strips of land and the fact that the remaining pieces of the Property were still easily accessible.

 

Save Mount Diablo v. Contra Costa County (Nunn) (2015) 14 C.D.O.S. 11084

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