Gardner v. County of Sonoma, Supreme Court of California (2003)

Facts: In 1865, prior to any applicable subdivision map regulations, a map entitled “The Redwood Estate of SH Greene” was recorded with the Sonoma County Recorder showing nearly 90 rectangular lots on 1,000 acres of land. This subdivision was shown on an atlas adopted as the “official map” of the county in 1877. In 1990, the plaintiffs came into possession of approximately 158 acres of that land which has remained intact under sequential owners throughout its history. Their property includes only two of the subdivided lots in full and fragments of ten of the other original lots. It is currently zoned by the county for “Resource and Rural Development” and 40-acre density.

In 1996, the plaintiffs applied to the County’s permit and resource management department for 12 certificates of compliance with the Subdivision Map Act to establish that their property consisted of 12 lawfully created parcels that could be sold, leased, or financed in compliance with the Act. The department denied their application because the parcels were recorded before the Legislature enacted the first subdivision map statute. The planning commission and the County Board of Supervisors both denied the plaintiffs’ appeals.

Procedure: The plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate in superior court to compel the County to issue the 12 certificates of compliance. The superior court denied the petition, ruling that the Green map did not create legal parcels within the meaning of the Subdivision Map Act. The Court of Appeal affirmed. The Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs’ petition for review.

Issue: Did the Greene map create legal parcels within the meaning of the Subdivision Map Act, or does the legislative intent underlying the Act preclude legal recognition of subdivision lots shown on antiquated subdivision maps recorded before 1893?

Holding: The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal, holding that the 1865 recordation of the subdivision map did not establish or create legally cognizable subdivisions for the purposes of the Act.

Rational: Unlike the modern-day final map or parcel map, the recordation of a subdivision map in Sonoma County in 1865, without something more, did not work a legal subdivision of the property. The plaintiffs’ argument that the “anti-merger provision” of the Subdivision Map Act prevents the county from automatically merging the parcels of property into one does not apply because their parcels were not legal subdivisions prior to the Map Act. Moreover, the court finds that issuing the certificates of compliance based on the 1865 map would be counter to the Act’s objectives to “encourage and facilitate orderly community development, [and] coordinate planning with the community pattern established by local authorities.”