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California Court of Appeal Finds County’s Action to Abandon a Public Road Easement Relied on Incorrect EIR in Conducting Subsequent Review

California Court of Appeal Finds County’s Action to Abandon a Public Road Easement Relied on Incorrect EIR in Conducting Subsequent Review
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By James Purvis

Owners of property in a residential subdivision brought an inverse condemnation claim against Placer County (County) and filed petitions for writ of mandate against the County and the adjacent community, challenging the County’s partial abandonment of public easement rights in a road linking the subdivision and the adjacent community on alleged Ralph M. Brown Act and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) claims. After the trial court sustained the County’s demurrer to inverse condemnation and denied the petitions, the subdivision owners appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that the owners were entitled to relief on their CEQA cause of action. [Martis Camp Community Association v. County of Placer, 53 Cal.App.5th 569 (3rd Dist. 2020).]

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2015, Placer County partially abandoned public easement rights in Mill Site Road, a road connecting two residential subdivisions: Martis Camp and the Retreat at Northstar (Retreat). As originally planned, the connection between the subdivisions was intended for emergency access and public transit vehicles only. At the time of approval, environmental review for subdivisions assumed there would be no private vehicle trips between the subdivisions, and Martis Camp residents wishing to access the Northstar-at-Tahoe Ski Resort (Northstar) would use State Route 267. In or around 2010, however, Martis Camp residents began using the connection as a shortcut to Northstar.

In 2014, after efforts to have County officials stop Martis Camp residents from using the emergency access road failed, the Retreat owners filed an application requesting that the County board of supervisors (Board) abandon the public’s right to use Mill Site Road. The Board approved the partial abandonment in 2015, thereby restricting use of Mill Site Road to Retreat property owners and emergency and transit vehicles, consistent with the prior planning documents. In response, Martis Camp Community Association and three Martis Camp property owners brought suits against the County, as defendants, and Retreat property owners and their homeowners association, as real parties in interest.

Issues on Appeal

In 2018, the trial court sustained the County’s demurrer to inverse condemnation and denied the petitions. On appeal, plaintiffs raise four issues. First, they contend that the trial court erred in concluding there was no violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act when the County approved changes to the conditions of approval for the Martis Camp or Retreat projects without a properly noticed meeting. Second, they claim the trial court erroneously denied the petitions because the County violated the statutory requirements for abandonment. Third, they argue the trial court erroneously denied the petitions because the County violated CEQA when approving the abandonment. Fourth, they assert the trial court improperly sustained a demurrer to the inverse condemnation claim.

 The Court of Appeal’s Decision

 Alleged Brown Act Violations

The Court of Appeal first addressed plaintiffs’ claim that the County violated the Brown Act by fundamentally altering conditions of approval for the Retreat or Martis Camp projects without prior notice to the public. This argument was based on the fact that, in 2011 and 2012, the director of the County community development resource agency (CDRA) found that the project conditions of approval would not prohibit Martis Camp residents from using Mill Site Road as a means of ingress/egress. The court disagreed, finding that the conditions of approval always limited use of the emergency access road to emergency/transit uses. It therefore concluded that the act of formally overruling the CDRA director’s prior enforcement letters was not a “distinct item of business” that needed to be included on the agenda.

Abandonment of Mill Site Road

The Court of Appeal next addressed the claim that the County’s decision violated the statutory requirements for abandonment. The court disagreed with the plaintiffs, first concluding that a legislative finding that a road is unnecessary cannot be defeated simply by showing that people would use the road if it were not abandoned. If something is not “needed,” the Court of Appeal explained, this means that it is not required, which is different from saying that something is not wanted or desired by individual citizens. The fact that some Martis Camp residents were using Mill Site Road as a connection between Martis Camp and Northstar therefore did not preclude the Board from finding that the road was not a necessary part of the public transportation network, particularly given that the road was not planned, designed, or approved to accommodate such use.

The court also rejected claims that: by reserving easements for transit/emergency access and public utility services, the County conceded that Mill Site Road is necessary for some public use; the County improperly allowed Retreat owners to continue to use the road to access their properties; and the Board violated the abandonment statutes by requiring an irrevocable offer of dedication by which the County could reacquire the public road easements in Mill Site Road under certain conditions. With respect to each issue, the court found that the County had acted properly, and plaintiffs had not cited any authority contravening the actions taken by the Board.

Finally, the Court of Appeal disagreed with plaintiffs’ claim that the findings as to the public interest were irrelevant because they focused on whether Mill Site Road was intended to function as a public road and ignored that the road was, in fact, functioning as a public road. The court found the Board properly recognized that Mill Street Road was never intended to be used as a means for Martis Camp residents to access their community, such finding was relevant to address plaintiffs’ claim that Mill Street Road is necessary due to Martis Camp residents’ use of the road as a shortcut to Northstar, and the Board’s findings regarding the public interest otherwise were supported by substantial evidence.

Alleged CEQA Violations

The Court of Appeal next addressed plaintiffs’ CEQA claims, finding that the County incorrectly considered abandonment of the road as a change to the Martis Camp project, when in fact it modified the Retreat project. While the court acknowledged the County’s rationale for preparing an addendum to the Martis Camp Environmental Impact Report (EIR), as the practical effect was to restore traffic patterns to what was evaluated in the Martis Camp EIR, the court found the County could not analyze a change in one project (i.e., the Retreat project) by relying on analysis from an EIR prepared for a different project (i.e., the Martis Camp project). The County therefore was required to evaluate whether a subsequent or supplemental EIR would be required based on the Retreat project EIR.

The Court of Appeal, however, rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the environmental baseline should have reflected that Martis Camp residents were using Mill Street Road as a shortcut to access Northstar. The Court disagreed, finding that plaintiffs conflated CEQA’s rules governing initial review of a project with the rules governing supplemental review. When a lead agency considers whether to prepare a subsequent EIR, the Court found, it may limit its consideration to effects not considered in connection with the earlier project. Nonetheless, because it found the County had proceeded under the incorrect EIR, the court did not reach the issue of whether the County used an appropriate baseline.

Inverse Condemnation

Finally, the Court of Appeal addressed plaintiff’s claim that the trial court improperly dismissed their inverse condemnation claim on the grounds that the Martis Camp homeowners, as nonabutting property owners, could not allege a compensable taking because their property does not directly abut Mill Site Road. The court agreed with the trial court, concluding that the homeowners could not allege a claim for abutter’s rights simply because they were granted a nonexclusive easement for ingress and egress over all the subdivision’s roads. The abandonment also did not interfere with their easement over the subdivision’s streets or otherwise render their homesites inaccessible.

Conclusion and Implications

The case is significant because it contains a substantive analysis of a variety of land use issues, including in particular the law of abandonment and subsequent environmental review under CEQA. The decision is available online at: