Tiburon Open Space Comm. v. Cnty. of Marin

Citation78 Cal.App.5th 700,294 Cal.Rptr.3d 56
Decision Date12 May 2022
Docket NumberA159860
Parties TIBURON OPEN SPACE COMMITTEE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. COUNTY OF MARIN, Defendant and Respondent; The Martha Company, Real Party in Interest and Respondent; Town of Tiburon, Intervener and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals

Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP, Matthew D. Hinks ; Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo P.C., Jonathan Welner, for Plaintiffs and Appellants, Tiburon Open Space Committee.

Brian E. Washington, County Counsel, Brian C. Case, Deputy, Brandon W. Halter, Deputy, for Defendants and Respondents, County of Marin.

Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP, Benjamin L. Stock, Kevin D. Siegel, for Appellant, Town of Tiburon.

Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP, Michael H. Zischke, Andrew B. Sabey, James M. Purvis, for Real Party in Interest, The Martha Company.

Richman, Acting P. J.

The Martha Company (Martha) owns the largest undeveloped parcel of real property in the vicinity of the Town of Tiburon, 110 acres on top of a mountain, overlooking much of the town and commanding a stunning view of San Francisco Bay. One county supervisor described the site as "the last remaining undeveloped ridgeline on the Tiburon peninsula," and, as such, "it's treasured by residents and visitors." Another supervisor called it "amazing," "unique," and "an absolute treasure," while a third termed it a "jewel."

For decades, Martha has tried to get official approval from the County of Marin to develop the property. Local opposition has been intense and unrelenting.

One manifestation of that opposition has been periodic bouts of litigation in federal district court, starting in 1975, between Martha and the County. The litigation produced two stipulated judgments, one in 1976, the other in 2007. The most significant aspect was that the County twice solemnly—and publicly—agreed to approve Martha building no fewer than 43 units on the property.

Approval for Martha finally came in October 2017—12 years after its latest application for permission to develop the property—when the County certified an environmental impact report and conditionally approved Martha's master plan to construct 43 single-family residences. The County took this action in the belief it was compelled by the stipulated judgments, particularly the 2007 one.

It is axiomatic that governmental powers are indefeasible and inalienable. They cannot be surrendered, suspended, contracted away, waived, or otherwise divested. In short, government cannot bind itself not to govern by exercising its rightful powers, nor can it bind the hands of its successors.

The primary issue here, advanced by the Town and a number of interested Tiburon residents, is whether the County violated this principle by complying with an ostensibly final judgment. The allegation is that the County in effect agreed it would not follow or enforce state law, specifically, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to prevent development of an anticipated project by the other party to the litigation.

We conclude that the County did not abdicate its authority or otherwise undertake not to comply with CEQA. With its eyes wide open, the County complied with a binding, final judgment to which it was a party, and that judgment in no way anticipated or legitimated ignoring CEQA.

We reject the remaining objections from the Town and interested persons, and affirm the judgment in full.

The Federal Court Judgments

Martha is the owner of 110 acres of real property that is, for all practical purposes, undeveloped. Although the site is located in an unincorporated area of the County of Marin, it overlooks much of the Town of Tiburon. It also commands a sweeping panoramic view of almost all of the San Francisco Bay.

Developing the site with single-family residences has been Martha's goal for decades. That prospect has generated intense opposition, especially from the Town and residents of Tiburon. But also from the County, which was twice in federal district court opposing Martha's plans to develop the site. That litigation concluded with two judgments entered pursuant to stipulated settlements. Those judgments are at the heart of this dispute.

The current chapter of the dispute begins in 1974, when the County adopted a re-zoning measure that reduced the number of residences Martha could build on the site from a minimum of 300 units to a maximum of 34.2 The re-zoning would also preclude Martha from building on an area known as the Ridge and the Upland Greenbelt. In response, Martha sued the County in federal district court, seeking $6 million on the theory that the re-zoning effected a regulatory taking of property.

"In December 1976 Martha and the County settled the federal lawsuit by a stipulated judgment (the 1976 Judgment) which provided in part: 1 Martha was allowed to develop no fewer than 43 single-family homesites on minimum one-half acre lots; and 2 Martha could place some homesites within the Ridge and Upland Greenbelt, defined as 300 ft. horizontally and 100 ft. vertically of visually prominent ridgelines. The County also determined that 43 single-family units located on one-half acre minimum lots ‘is consistent with the goals of the general plan and will allow the owners a feasible economic use of their property.’ The settlement took place before Martha submitted its proposed master development plan, drawings, or maps.

"In return, Martha was required to dedicate about 50% of the land to the County as open space and to allow the County to develop public hiking trails in these open spaces. This agreement was made to run with the land. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors dated December 23, 1976, commenting on the stipulated judgment, County Counsel explained that Martha's master development plan must still meet ‘procedural and hearing requirements, including an environmental impact report, and comply with all applicable design standards.’ "

At this point, because of its centrality, the express language of the 1976 Judgment must be quoted, the most important of which was the following: "[A]fter review of the site and a proposed development plan of the Martha Co., property the Planning Department and Board of Supervisors have determined that development of the parcel with not less than a minimum of 43 single family residential units located on one-half acre minimum lots is consistent with the goals of the general plan .... [¶] ... [¶] It is expressly agreed that 43 residential units is the minimum number of units to be allowed on the Martha Co. property."3

"After years of planning, Martha submitted its application for a development plan to the County, and the County in turn directed Martha to file its application with the Town for approval. After the Town conducted years of study without rendering a decision, Martha withdrew its application from the Town and on April 19, 2005, reapplied to the County.

"The County still refused to process the application, asserting the property would require services from the Town over which the County lacked jurisdiction. Also, neighbors who own parcels within 300 feet of Martha's property (the ‘property owners’), complained to the County that the 1976 stipulated judgment was void and violated their Due Process rights because the County entered into the stipulated judgment without providing them notice and an opportunity to be heard."

The County responded by returning to federal district court in 2005, asking that it "be relieved from operation of the Judgment." Martha and the Town were named as defendants, as were a number of the property owners—presumably because they had threatened to sue the County it if moved to enforce the 1976 judgment. The County alleged that the 1976 Judgment was "void and unenforceable [because], inter alia, environmental laws have changed in the 30 years since the 1976 Judgment, and while the limits of the County's authority to contract away its discretion over certain environmental land use issues was not clear in 1976, it is now clear that it was illegal for the County to have contracted away its authority to evaluate the minimum density provisions of the proposed development without conducting a full environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act .... [¶] The County alleged that to bind it to the 1976 Judgment under these circumstances ‘would thwart the strong public policy of the State of California to allow a development of this magnitude, on environmentally sensitive and constrained land to proceed without the development and density being subject to CEQA review.’ "

The County's position was echoed by the property owners, who "filed counterclaims against the County, Martha and the Town ... asserting [that] by entering into the 1976 Judgment the County violated the property owners' federal due process rights; the 1976 Judgment violated their state and local notice and hearing rights without providing them notice and an opportunity to be heard; and the County illegally contracted away its police powers over its statutory land use authority when it entered into the judgment."

After the district court dismissed the County's complaint and the property owners' counterclaims,4 the County and Martha again drafted and submitted a Stipulation for Entry of Judgment and Procedures for Enforcing Judgment Entered in the first action.5 The stipulation itself is not in the record. Because of its importance, the judgment—dated November 7, 2007, and hereafter cited as to 2007 Judgment—must be described in some detail. It opens with the following:

"Based upon the [dismissal] rulings of the Court, the County acknowledges that it must process a subdivision map in conformance with the 1976 Judgment. Therefore the parties have settled all litigation between them by creating a timeline and procedures for enforcing the 1976 Judgment, and this Court implements such settlement by ordering as decreeing as follows:

"[¶] ... [¶]


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