California’s statues of limitations in land use cases are notoriously short and harsh and don’t often result in outcomes favorable to aggrieved applicants. Exceptions such as Honchariw v. County of Stanislaus, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2020) (Case No. F077815) (i.e., Honchariw IV), are thus notable and worth remembering.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal partially published Honchariw IV on June 25, 2020, holding that frequent pro se litigant Nicholas Honchariw’s challenge to the County of Stanislaus’ misinterpretation of the conditions it placed on a vesting tentative subdivision map are not barred by the 90-day statute of limitations of Government Code section 66499.37. In so holding the Court explained that a claim of misinterpretation is distinct from a claim challenging the validity of a condition of approval and that the two types of claims accrue at different times.
In the unpublished part of the case the Court considered the meaning of the disputed conditions of approval and explained that the interpretation of tentative map conditions is governed by general principles for construing written instruments, so long as those principles do not undermine the purposes of the Subdivision Map Act or the particular purposes of the vesting tentative map statute. According to the Court, such conditions must be given an objectively reasonable interpretation to protect the reasonable expectations of the subdivider. The local agency is responsible for clearly stating the tentative map conditions and its subjective “state of mind” is not relevant.
The case arose out of the County Board of Supervisors’ 2012 approval of Honchariw’s vesting tentative map application to create eight residential lots on a 33.7-acre riverfront parcel his family had owned and used recreationally for decades. The County was particularly concerned about the source of water to serve residential demand and fire suppression and thus imposed four conditions of approval to address those issues. Several years later, when Honchariw sought to obtain a final subdivision map, the County contended that the conditions required a fire suppression system, with functional fire hydrants in place, before it would approve the final map. Honchariw contended the County’s interpretation “came at him out of the blue” and that he understood the conditions to require fire suppression at the time of permitting and construction, not at the approval of a final map.
Honchariw and the County tried to find an agreeable way to proceed but eventually reached an impasse. Each side remained steadfast in its position, with the County contending that the water system and fire hydrants must be functional at the time of final map approval and Honchariw contending a functional fire suppression system was not required for approval of a final map and could be built out instead as the lots were developed. The trial court ruled in favor of the County and denied all relief sought.
On appeal the County contended that Honchariw’s challenge was barred by the statute of limitations in Government Code section 66499.37, which provides in part as follows:
“Any action or proceeding to attack, review, set aside, void, or annul the decision of an advisory agency, appeal board, or legislative body concerning a subdivision, or of any of the proceedings, acts, or determinations taken, done, or made prior to the decision, or to determine the reasonableness, legality, or validity of any condition attached thereto, including, but not limited to, the approval of a tentative map or final map, shall not be maintained by any person unless the action or proceeding is commenced and service of summons effected within 90 days after the date of the decision. Thereafter all persons are barred from any action or proceeding or any defense of invalidity or unreasonableness of the decision or of the proceedings, acts, or determinations . . . .”
The Court disagreed with the County and noted that Honchariw’s main issue was not with the “reasonableness, legality, or validity” of any of the 2012 conditions of approval but rather with the County’s later misinterpretation or misapplication of the conditions. The Court reasoned that the County’s interpretation is the “act” or “determination” Honchariw challenged and held that a challenge to the interpretation of conditions of approval is distinct from a challenge to the validity of the conditions. According to the Court, a claim challenging an agency’s interpretation does not accrue until it is clear what interpretation the agency has adopted and that the interpretation is the agency’s final position.
Honchariw IV is an important new case for subdividers where they disagree with a city or county interpretation of subdivision map conditions of approval. The case is equally important, however, for land use applicants who disagree with a city or county interpretation of project conditions of approval and where further negotiations or attempts at clarification are unnecessary or would be futile.
Questions? Please contact Bryan W. Wenter, AICP of Miller Starr Regalia.
For more than 50 years, Miller Starr Regalia has served as one of California’s leading real estate law firms. Miller Starr Regalia has expertise in all types of real property matters, including full-service litigation and dispute resolution, transactions, acquisitions, dispositions, leasing, financing, common interest development, construction, management, eminent domain and inverse condemnation, exactions, title insurance, environmental law, and land use. Miller Starr Regalia attorneys also write Miller & Starr, California Real Estate 4th, a 12-volume treatise on California real estate law. “The Book” is the most widely used and judicially recognized real estate treatise in California and is cited by practicing attorneys and courts throughout the state. For more information, visit www.msrlegal.com.