Curtis v. Board of Supervisors

Citation7 Cal.3d 942,501 P.2d 537,104 Cal.Rptr. 297
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Decision Date19 September 1972
Parties, 501 P.2d 537 Gordon M. CURTIS, Jr., et al., Petitioners, v. BOARD OF SUPERVISORS OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY et al., Respondents. L.A. 29873. In Bank

Richards, Watson & Dreyfuss and James K. Herbert, Los Angeles, for petitioners.

John D. Maharg, County Counsel, David D. Max, and Edward H. Gaylord, Asst. County Counsel, Joe B. Hudgens and Douglas V. Hart, Deputy County Counsel, O'Melveny & Myers, Bennett W. Priest, Richard S. Volpert, Lowell C. Martindale, Patrick Lynch and James V. Selna, Los Angeles, for respondents.

TOBRINER, Justice.

When persons owning a majority of assessed valuation of land within the proposed City of Rancho Palos Verdes filed a written protest, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, pursuant to Government Code section 34311, refused to call an incorporation election. The crux of petitioners' plea to us is that section 34311 violates the Constitution; upon this basis they seek mandate to compel the board to resume incorporation proceedings. We have concluded that the section is, indeed, unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the correlative provisions of the California Constitution. (Cal.Const. art. I, §§ 11, 21; see Serrano v. Priest (1971) 5 Cal.3d 584, 596, fn. 11, 96 Cal.Rptr. 601, 487 P.2d 1241.) Section 34311 grants owners of large tracts of land the power to veto the formation of a new city, to the disadvantage of both residents who own no land and those whose holdings consist of small improved parcels; this classification does not rest upon a compelling state interest and is not necessary to further any such interest.

In the opening paragraph of their study of California's municipal incorporation laws, Professor Hagman and Instructor Disco say 'In California and in many other states of the nation, provisions for municipal incorporation and for changes in the boundaries of local jurisdictions are archaic abominations dominated by the 'horse and buggy' concepts of our rural past. . . . Legislation in many states still reflects outdated patterns where the property tax was virtually the sole source of local government revenue and outdated beliefs that the people in an area, however small, should have virtually absolute control over their 'turf' as demarcated by city and other local government boundaries.' (Hagman and Disco, One-Man One-Vote as a Constitutional Imperative for Needed Reform of Incorporation and Boundary Change Laws (1971) 2 Urban Law. 459.)

These observations serve as a fitting background for the analysis of this case.

1. California procedures for incorporation of a city

Before stating the facts of this case we summarize the procedural steps involved in the corporation of a city. Proceedings begin when the proponents of the new city file an application with the county executive officer. (Gov.Code, § 54791.) 1 This officer sets and gives notice of a hearing before the local agency formation commission of the county (§ 54793), which is a five-man board empowered to approve, amend, condition, or disapprove proposals for incorporation of cities, and for formation of other local agencies. (§ 54790.) 2 Section 54796 3 sets forth the factors to be considered by the commission; they include the population, the land, the area, the topography, the need for organized community services, the present cost and adequacy of government services, and the effect of the incorporation upon neighboring communities. No petition for incorporation may be circulated or filed with the board of supervisors without the approval of the local agency formation commission.

Once such approval has been attained, the proponents may file with the board of supervisors a notice of intention to circulate the incorporation petition; this notice must be signed by 25 to 50 owners of real property within the proposed city. (§ 34302.5.) Within 120 days after filing of the notice, the proponents must file their petition for incorporation, signed by at least 25 percent of the landowners in the proposed boundaries, representing at least 25 percent of the assessed value of land within those boundaries. (§ 34303.) 4

Upon the verification of the signatures on the petition, the board of supervisors publishes a notice of hearing. (§ 34310.) Section 34311 then requires the board to hold hearings, and provides that 'if upon the final hearing the board of supervisors finds and determines that written protests to the proposed incorporation have been filed with the board, signed by qualified signers representing 51 percent of the total assessed valuation of the land within the boundaries of the proposed incorporation, the jurisdiction of the board of supervisors shall cease; no election shall be called and no further petition for the incorporation of any of the same territory shall be initiated for one year after the date of such determination.' 5

If the filed protests are insufficient to divest the board of jurisdiction, it decides upon the boundaries (§ 34315) and name (§ 34314.5) of the proposed city, and gives notice of an election to determine whether it should be incorporated (§ 34318). All registered voters who have resided within the designated boundaries for the specified period are eligible to vote (see § 34324). The board of supervisors canvasses the vote (§ 34325), and if a majority favors incorporation, the board declares the city incorporated (§ 34326), and files a certified copy of its order with the Secretary of State (§ 34327). 6

2. The history of the present litigation.

This case presents no disputed issues of fact. The Palos Verdes peninsula borders the Pacific Ocean in the southwest corner of Los Angeles County. The peninsula contains three small cities--Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills, and Rolling Hills Estates--but most of the area is unincorporated. Petitioners in the present action reside in the unincorporated area. Petitioners Curtis, Derbes, Hackworthy and Ruth own homes in this area; petitioners Federici and Narevsky own no land. All petitioners are registered voters.

The petitioners proposed that the unincorporated land of the peninsula be incorporated into a fourth city, tentatively named Rancho Palos Verdes. The proposed city would have an area of 12.688 square miles and a population of 38,885 by the 1970 census. 7 This area is primarily developed with single-family housing; it also includes large amounts of undeveloped land and commercial holdings of Standard Oil Co. of California and Marineland of the Pacific, Inc. In 1970 the area counted 16,763 registered voters; 8 most of these voters own real property within the city boundaries, but over 1,000 do not. 9 The assessed value of land within the city, as of the fiscal year 1970--71, was $66,836,080. The largest landowner is Great Lakes Properties, Inc., which owns unimproved land valued at $5,802,840, followed by Marineland of the Pacific, Inc. with land valued at $1,337,500. Improvements within the city command an assessed value of $67,827,920, but the record does not indicate the value of specific improvements. 10

Petitioners filed an application for incorporation of Rancho Palos Verdes on February 8, 1970. After hearing, the local agency formation commission approved the application on April 22, 1970. On May 5 petitioners filed a notice of intention to circulate a petition and on June 25 submitted petitions bearing signatures of about 63.6 percent of the landowners within the proposed boundaries, representing about 42.8 percent of the assessed valuation of land. The board of supervisors verified the signatures and scheduled a hearing for September 8. At this hearing, however, opponents of incorporation filed written protests representing over 55 percent of the assessed value of land. Determining that it had no jurisdiction to proceed further, the board declined to establish boundaries for the proposed city or to call an incorporation election.

Although petitioners commenced this action in the appellate courts without first addressing the superior court for relief, this is a case in which 'the issues presented are of great public importance and must be resolved promptly' and thus the action permits the exercise of original jurisdiction by the appellate courts. (County of Sacramento v. Hickman (1967) 66 Cal.2d 841, 845, 59 Cal.Rptr. 609, 428 P.2d 593.) The case presents issues directly affecting the 35,000 residents of the proposed city and nonresident landowners; pending the resolution of those issues several other proposals for incorporation or annexation of territory within the proposed boundaries must wait in uncertainty. The issues, moreover, extend their import beyond the Palos Verdes peninsula and affect the procedures used for the formation of cities and other local agencies throughout the state.

3. The standard of equal protection: in order to comply with the requirement of the equal protection of the laws the classification of section 34311 must rest upon a compelling state interest and must be necessary to further any such interest.

We set forth, first, the legal principles of equal protection of the laws that control the instant situation. Municipal corporations are political subdivisions of the state. Subject only to its own laws and constitution, the state may create, expand, diminish, or adolish such subdivisions, and 'all this may be done, conditionally or unconditionaly, with or without the consent of the citizens, or even against their protest.' (Hunter v. City of Pittsburgh (1907) 207 U.S. 161, 179, 28 S.Ct. 40, 46, 52 L.Ed. 151; see San Francisco v. Canavan (1872) 42 Cal. 541, 557--558.) Yet this extensive reach of the state to determine whether and how to create, or later, municipal corporations does not compose an unlimited power (see Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960) 364 U.S. 339, 342--345, ...

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