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Subdivision shuffle 

Errant supervisors forced to bow to responsible land-use planning

Here's the front-page headline from the May 5 weekly update issued by the Coalition of Labor Agriculture and Business (COLAB), in all its primal screaming glory:


Furthermore: "NOW YOU'RE [sic] GREAT GRANDMOTHER'S LOTS ARE ILLEGAL! Next they will repudiate the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and advocate of [sic] return California to Mexico."

At its May 7 meeting, as a result of the Sierra Club's lawsuit that was the cause of COLAB's heartburn, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to vote to rescind the unconditional permission the board majority had granted to facilitate development of a dozen land parcels in South County based on an antique subdivision map.

When COLAB released its weekly update two days before that scheduled vote, it was shocked—shocked!—that "the Sierra Club, county planning staff, and county counsel" asserted that the owners of antique maps "should go through the full subdivision application process under today's standards."

Two days later, the repeal vote was suddenly pulled from the board's consent agenda amid a flurry of confusion. It returned at the board's May 21 meeting, when the board finally undid what it had done.

Sixteen years ago, in the California Supreme Court case Gardner v. County of Sonoma, the court laid down the law that the SLO County Board of Supervisors majority ignored. As to why the Sierra Club had to sue them, here's the most relevant passage from the court's ruling:

"If we were to adopt plaintiffs' position and hold that local agencies must issue a certificate of compliance for any parcel depicted on an accurate, antiquated subdivision map, we would, in effect, be permitting the sale, lease, and financing of parcels:  (1) without regard to regulations that would otherwise require consistency with applicable general and specific plans and require consideration of potential environmental and public health consequences; (2) without consideration of dedications and impact mitigation fees that would otherwise be authorized by the [Subdivision Map] Act;  and (3) without affording notice and an opportunity to be heard to interested persons and landowners likely to suffer a substantial or significant deprivation of their property rights."

Regardless, 16 years later, the SLO County board majority defended its contrary vote to the bitter end (before voting to overturn it). Fifth District Supervisor Debbie Arnold asserted, "It's not a one-size-fits-all. I get it, there are a lot of antiquated subdivisions in this county out in the boonies where we know now that we have land use planning and we take that seriously ... but not all the antiquated subdivisions are the same." First District Supervisor John Peschong mused that he had hoped the case would go to court so the legal questions surrounding the matter could be settled, but, alas, the applicant didn't want to do that so he had to rescind his vote of approval.

Sue Harvey, chair of the Sierra Club's Santa Lucia Chapter, corrected them both, saying "There was nothing esoteric or fuzzy about the law regarding antiquated subdivisions. ... It appears to me that you knowingly chose the rule of privilege over the rule of law."

Calling the board's forced about-face "completely predictable," 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson invited Chairwoman Arnold to recall the "very blunt advice" that was given by the assistant county counsel that the board majority's vote was "doomed from a legal perspective from the start. ... There's a reason that the Subdivision Map Act was put in place, and there's a reason that the subsequent legal interpretations of the Map Act have refined how we apply it. So it's my hope that this board will be more careful in the future as we consider the question of development in rural areas and go through the process."

The ultimate reply to COLAB, and to Supervisor Peschong's pretense of unsettled legal questions and Supervisor Arnold's "it's not one-size-fits-all" (despite multiple court rulings recognizing that land development decisions need to protect communities and the environment and that 100-year-old maps don't do that), came in 2003 in a brief filed by the American Planning Association in Gardner v. County of Sonoma:

"California has adopted an extensive statutory framework requiring municipalities and counties to plan for their future growth and development, to draft land-use regulations consistent with their plan, to implement their plans through a public involvement process that encourages the community to think about the future when they are making development decisions today. Nothing can undermine all of this more effectively than the 18th century ghosts appearing in the form of antiquated subdivision maps, claiming a right to direct Sonoma County's growth and development in the 21st century."

Two of San Luis Obispo County's supervisors get that. Three of them don't. Δ

Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at or get your thoughts published by emailing a letter to

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