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Lot lines and CEQA

A state court in California held earlier this year that the approval of sequential lot line adjustments was a ministerial act and thus not subject to the constraints of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In Sierra Club v. Napa County Board of Supervisors, the Sierra Club challenged a County ordinance which allowed what is known as “sequential lot line adjustments.” Sequential lot line adjustments allow for the same lot to be adjusted multiple times or for several adjacent lots to be adjusted in quick succession. This can make for relatively quick and drastic changes to the use of such lots. CEQA was passed in order to “minimize the adverse effects of new construction on the environment.” It requires an extensive study of each project and the potential effects it could have on the environment before a project is approved. The Sierra Club feared that the Napa ordinance was simply a way to circumvent CEQA and bypass environmental concerns.

One important provision of CEQA is that it applies to discretionary projects but not ministerial projects. In other words, projects which do not require officials to use discretion in approving them are not required to meet the CEQA guidelines of the environmental impact studies. The Sierra Club argued that, since individualized decisions must be made by local authorities concerning lot line adjustments, such decisions and approvals were inherently discretionary. The court disagreed. The court pointed out that local officials may be required to make individualized decisions about projects, yet not have the authority to use their discretion about the projects. The court noted that officials may be required to answer 125 individual questions about each project, but if those questions are all “yes or no” questions, then no discretion is involved. Since the court found that the sequential lot line adjustments were all ministerial and non-discretionary, it held that the requirements of CEQA do not apply to such adjustments.

CEQA is a far-reaching law that touches many areas of business in California. As such, it will naturally be involved in a good deal of litigation. As more litigation occurs, the picture of how CEQA is applied and the impact it has could change significantly. This is something that developers and land-owners in California need to be aware of. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive and nation-wide experience in dealing with different land-use statutes and ordinances. If you feel that your rights are being violated in this regard, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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