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California Supreme Court Agrees with Meyers Nave Amicus Brief; Holds Newly Incorporated City Not Estopped from Disapproving Final Subdivision Map

In a decision upholding the discretion of the newly incorporated City of Goleta to deny a “final” subdivision map that complied with a “tentative” map which was previously approved by the County out of which the City was formed, the California Supreme Court has emphasized the difficulty of holding local agencies to be “estopped,” on grounds of alleged unfairness, from acting in compliance with their laws.

Amrit Kulkarni of the Meyers Nave Land Use Group, along with Kyle La Londe, supported the City’s estoppel arguments in an amicus brief, filed on behalf of the League of California Cities and the City of Laguna Woods.

The Subdivision Map Act (SMA) generally requires that a final subdivision map be approved if it complies with a previously approved tentative subdivision map. However, the SMA contains a “safe harbor” provision, under which a newly incorporated city is not obligated to approve a final map if (1) the developer applied for the tentative map after circulation of the city’s incorporation petition commenced, or (2) the county approved the tentative map after the voters approved the incorporation.

In City of Goleta v. Superior Court (December 21, 2006), the California Supreme Court held the City was not barred from relying on the safe harbor provision of the SMA by its interim adoption of a County subdivision ordinance that mandated approval of final map in conformity with a tentative map previously approved by “the County” – because the City had amended the interim ordinance to refer to maps previously approved by “the City.”

The Court also rejected the developer’s arguments that the City was “estopped” from relying on the safe harbor provision by the City’s alleged representations that the final map “would receive ministerial approval.” The Court emphasized that estoppel “will not apply against a governmental body except in unusual instances when necessary to avoid grave injustice . . . .” The Court refused to apply estoppel in this case, where there was no evidence that the City expressly promised approval of the final map, and City officials had — both before and after incorporation — made public their concerns about the project.