Van't Rood v. County of Santa Clara

Decision Date20 November 2003
Docket NumberNo. H023716,H023716
Citation113 Cal.App.4th 549,6 Cal.Rptr.3d 746
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesRichard van't ROOD, Plaintiff and Appellant; John PEREIRA et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, Defendant and Respondent.

Law Offices of Craig J. Bassett, Craig J. Bassett, Morgan Hill, for Plaintiff and Appellant.

No appearance, for Plaintiffs and Respondents.

Ann Miller Ravel, County Counsel, David E. Kahn, Deputy County Counsel, Office of the County Counsel, for Defendant and Respondent County of Santa Clara.

WUNDERLICH, J.

In 1970, a landowner subdivided his property and sold portions of it to two adjoining neighbors. Nearly 30 years later, it came to light that the map filed in connection with the property division apparently merged each neighbor's property holdings. That revelation prompted the affected neighbors to bring this proceeding to exclude their property from the subdivision. Following a three-day hearing, the trial court denied the petition for exclusion. One of the petitioners brought this appeal.

As we explain below, we conclude that the trial court should have granted the petition for exclusion from the subdivision map. We therefore reverse the judgment.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 1970, John R. Weis sought permission from Santa Clara County (County) to divide his 10-acre property in San Martin. Weis initially applied to divide his property into two lots, but later modified his application to seek a division into three parcels. Weis planned to keep one parcel, about three-and-a-half acres in size, on which he and his wife had a home. He planned to sell the other two parcels to two adjoining neighbors, one to the northwest and one to the northeast. At the time, the zoning permitted one-acre minimum lots.

In early April 1970, Weis signed a contract with his neighbors to the northwest, John W. Pereira and Edwin A. Vargas (collectively, Pereira/Vargas). At that time, Pereira and Vargas, partners in the dairy business, each owned undivided interests in two adjoining parcels, which together comprised nearly 12 acres. One of their preexisting parcels was approximately 5.3 acres in size, while the other comprised about 6.3 acres. Only one of the two preexisting Pereira/Vargas parcels shared a boundary with Weis's property. The contract between Pereira/Vargas and Weis called for the purchase of about 3.9 acres of additional land.

Two weeks later, Weis signed a similar contract with his neighbor to the northeast, Frank B. Pacheco. Like Pereira and Vargas, Pacheco was a dairy farmer who then owned two adjoining parcels, one comprising 10 acres and the other three-quarters of an acre. Both of Pacheco's preexisting parcels shared a boundary with Weis's property. Pacheco's contract with Weis called for the sale of an estimated 2.8 acres of additional land. The contract further states: "Seller to provide Buyer with record of survey and complete lot split procedure."

Weis submitted his land division application as an exemption request. At the time of the application, a provision of the Santa Clara County Ordinance Code authorized the County's Land Development Committee (Committee) to exempt from local regulation certain land divisions involving four or fewer parcels. The ordinance set forth standards for the Committee's grant of both discretionary and mandatory exemptions.

As part of his application for a land division, Weis submitted a plot plan showing his 10-acre property alone, divided into three parcels. The County stamped the plot plan "Tentative Map."

On April 21, 1970, Weis appeared at a hearing before the Land Development Committee in connection with his application. Neither Pereira nor Vargas nor Pacheco knew of the hearing, and none of them attended. The Committee conditionally approved Weis's application at the hearing.1 Several days later, the Committee formally confirmed its grant of the exemption request, subject to a survey of parcels and the recording of a parcel map.

As part of the approval process, the tentative map was stamped "Conditionally approved by the Land Development Committee on 4/21/70." In contrast to the tentative map submitted by Weis, the conditionally approved tentative map includes "tie-in marks"2 — added in pencil — connecting the parcels that Weis planned to sell with the existing properties owned by Pereira/Vargas and Pacheco. There was no direct evidence at trial of when the penciled tie-in marks were added or by whom.3

The 1970 Land Development Committee subdivision file contains a land development check sheet that includes this handwritten comment, dated 4/23/70: "Parcel Map to include gross area of all 3 related parcels — to Henke." Henke was an employee of Westfall Engineers, the survey firm hired by Weis to prepare the parcel map. Consistent with the County's apparent instruction, the parcel map prepared by Westfall Engineers included not only Weis's land, but also the land already belonging to Pereira/Vargas and to Pacheco, with new gross acreages appearing for each. As noted above, at the time the parcel map was prepared, Weis owned a single 10-acre parcel, which he proposed to divide into three; Pereira/Vargas owned two parcels totaling some 12 acres; and Pacheco owned two parcels totaling 10.75 acres. Nevertheless, only three numbered parcels appear on the parcel map: Parcel 1, which shows Weis's land as a single smaller parcel; Parcel 2, which shows Pereira/Vargas's land as a single, larger parcel containing their two existing parcels plus the land they proposed to buy from Weis, all connected by tie-in marks; and Parcel 3, which similarly shows Pacheco's land as a single, larger parcel containing his two existing parcels plus the land he proposed to buy from Weis, all connected by tie-in marks. Apparently, none of the affected neighbors ever saw the parcel map either before its recordation or for many years thereafter.

On June 17, 1970, the county surveyor certified the parcel map. On June 18, 1970, the parcel map was filed in the County's records, in Book 269 of Maps at page 43.

On June 19, 1970, grant deeds were recorded for Weis's conveyances to Pereira/Vargas and to Pacheco. The deed to Pereira/Vargas contains a metes and bounds description of the portion of Weis's property that they purchased from him. The deed to Pacheco likewise contains a metes and bounds description of the property that he purchased from Weis, which it identifies as "Parcel One." In addition, the Pacheco deed identifies a "Parcel Two," described as a 30-foot wide easement for ingress and egress, apparently over the larger of the two parcels that Pacheco already owned. Neither the Pereira/Vargas deed nor the Pacheco deed contains any reference to the parcel map. Weis financed both sales, in each case taking a promissory note secured by a deed of trust encumbering the real property separately described in each grant deed.

The lots that Pereira/Vargas and Pacheco acquired from Weis each received a separate tax assessment and a separate assessor's parcel number. In addition, at least one of the two lots acquired in 1970 was the subject of a separate Williamson Act contract (an agreement with the county to restrict the property to agricultural use). Pereira/Vargas and Pacheco each fenced off their newly acquired land, using it for many years to pasture yearling cows.

Nearly three decades passed. During that time, both Weis and Pacheco died. Zoning for the area also changed, from one-acre to 20-acre minimum lots.

In 1999, appellant Richard van't Rood (van't Rood) entered a contract to purchase the Pacheco property. The property was marketed as two separate parcels, one being Pacheco's original 10.75 acres and the other being the two-plus acres acquired from Weis in 1970. After receiving a separate title report on each parcel, van't Rood surmised that the original 10.75-acre property itself might consist of two legal lots, thereby giving him a total of three separate parcels under contract. In late 1999, prior to completing the property purchase, van't Rood submitted a "pre-application" to the County for a lot line adjustment to alter the boundaries of the three legal lots he thought he was purchasing. Based on the information available at the pre-application meeting, it appeared that the Pacheco property consisted of three legal, nonconforming lots. Appellant then completed his purchase of the property. The grant deed from Pacheco's trust to van't Rood was recorded in December 1999; it describes three parcels.

In January 2000, van't Rood formally applied for a three-lot lot line adjustment. In the course of evaluating the application, the County discovered the 1970 parcel map, which showed van't Rood's property as a single merged parcel. The County then informed van't Rood of its conclusion that he had only one parcel, not three. In the ensuing months, van't Rood sought to confirm that he had three parcels by applying to the County for certificates of compliance. He later withdrew that application when he became convinced that it was "pointless" to proceed in the face of the County's insistence on the validity of the 1970 parcel map showing his parcels as merged.

This legal action followed.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This proceeding was brought pursuant to provisions of the Subdivision Map Act that authorize landowners to petition to exclude their property from a subdivision map.4 (See Gov.Code, §§ 66499.21-66499.29.) The statute provides that the court "may" grant such a petition if "the petitioners produce to the court satisfactory evidence of the necessity of the exclusion of the real property" and "that there is no reasonable objection to making such exclusion." (Gov.Code, § 66499.25.)

Van't Rood and Pereira initiated this proceeding in June 2000, seeking exclusion from the 1970 parcel map or a declaration that the map was invalid. The County objected to the initial petition, partly on the procedural ground that it was not signed and verified...

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