Merced County challenges legality of Ranchwood Home's Livingston sewer trunk line
In the following letter, Merced County Counsel Ruben E. Castillo provides City of Livingston Attorney Thomas Hallinan, Jr. thoughtful instruction on the various laws the city may have broken in approving Ranchwood Home's construction of a sewer trunk pipeline from the city waste water treatment plant in a southerly direction on county land through Gallo and other ranches across several county roads and an irrigation canal toward a 300-acre Ranchwood Homes development in a "conceptual" stage of planning.
Ruben E. Castillo
February 16, 2006
Thomas Hallinan, Jr., City Attorney
City of Livingston
Post Office Box 486
Oakdale, CA 95361
Fax: (209) 847-5515
Re: Sewer Line Trunk Extension
Dear Mr. Hallinan:
I hope you are well. I am taking the opportunity to write to you about a sewer line extension to a proposed future residential development. The extension was approved by the City of Livingston. Unfortunately, there were a number of deficiencies in the City’s approval, and I wanted to alert you to them as one public agency attorney to another.
As I understand the facts, Ranchwood Homes (“Ranchwood”) is extending a 42” pipeline from the waste water treatment facility in the City to the site of Ranchwood’s proposed future residential development. I also understand that Ranchwood is in the conceptual design phase for the development of a residential housing project located in the unincorporated area of the County, partially within and partially outside of the Sphere of Influence of the City. In order to provide future sewer service for the proposed Ranchwood development project, Ranchwood entered into an agreement with the City to design, construct, and dedicate a sewer trunk line from the City’s waste water treatment plant to the proposed project site. This agreement reflects a finding by the City that the project was categorically exempt from CEQA. The agreement was unanimously approved by the City Council on December 21, 2004, but a Notice of Exemption was apparently never filed.
As approved by the City, the project called for the construction of 5,115 lineal feet of trunk sewer line by Ranchwood. The new sewer line would be installed “between the intersection of Gallo Drive/Vinewood Drive easterly and southerly to Peach Avenue. However, as approved, the “entire length of sewer trunk line is outside the City limit line and Sphere of Influence.” The sewer line is “designed to convey future urban sanitary sewer flows from the City to the existing Wastewater Treatment Plant site.” However, “no part of this in-ground project will be connected to the City sewer system until future mixed-use development occurs.” [December 21, 2004, City Staff Report re: Ranchwood Sewer Trunk Line, emphasis added.]
Following approval by the City, Ranchwood acquired easements from private property owners and the County department of public works. The project proceeded and a “dry” sewer trunk line was installed all the way from the waste water treatment plant to just short of Magnolia. At the request of the County, further installation has been stopped, subject to an encroachment permit from the County and compliance with all applicable laws.
Given these facts, I thought it important to share with you our legal view concerning the project. It is the County’s reasoned opinion that the approval of this project by the City does not comport with the City’s jurisdictional authority. Furthermore, it appears to run afoul of the Cortese-Knox Local Government Reorganization Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and general land use and planning law. As County Counsel, I respectfully request that the City take every action to bring its approval of this project into compliance with these laws, including all appropriate environmental analysis, and I further request that the City communicate with and cooperate with the County to make certain this project is carried out in conformance with the law and the jurisdictional authority of each respective public agency.
1. The City had no Power to Approve a Project Outside its Territorial Limits.
As you know, the California Constitution at Article XI, section 7, confers on a city the power to “make and enforce within its limits all local, police, sanitary and other ordinances and regulations not in conflict with general laws.” Thus, “[u]nder the police power granted by the Constitution, counties and cities have plenary authority to govern, subject only to the limitation that they exercise this power within their territorial limits and subordinate to state law. (Cal. Const., art. XI, Section 7.) Apart from this limitation, the ‘police power [of a county or city] under this provision . . . is as broad as the police power exercisable by the Legislature itself.’ Birkenfeld v. City of Berkeley (1976) 17 Ca. 3d 129, 140 [130 Cal. Rptr. 465, 550 P.2d 1001].” (Candid Enterprises, Inc. v. Grossmont Union High School Dist. (1942) 50 Cal App 2d 374, 122 P2d 965.)
A municipal corporation has generally no extraterritorial powers of regulation. It may not exercise its governmental functions beyond its corporate boundaries. (Von Schmidt v. Widber (1894) 105 Cal 151, 38 P 682; Mulville v. San Diego (1920) 183 Cal 734, 192 P 702; Oakland v. Brock (1937) 8 Cal 2d 639, 67 P2s 344.) The Constitution delegates directly to inferior governmental agencies the police power in their respective localities, provided only that its exercise by any city must be confined to such city. (People v. Taylor (1938) 33 Cal App 2d Supp 760.) A municipal ordinance can have no extraterritorial force unless by express permission of the sovereign power. (Ferran v. Palo Alto (1942) 50 Cal App 2d 374, 122 P2d 965.)
It is only when annexation occurs that the police power transfers from the County to the City. Police power has been given a county and a city, respectively, for exercise only “within its limits” and when land in suit was annexed to city it left territorial jurisdiction of county, ceased to be “within its limits,” and hence was no longer subject to provisions of county zoning ordinance classifying land as residential and limited to single family dwellings. (South San Francisco v. Berry (1953) 120 Cal App 2d 252, 260 P2d 1045.)
2. The Out-of-Boundary Extension of Service Requires Approval by LAFCO.
This sewer line extension should have been approved by LAFCO. As you know, a city that wishes to extend sewer service outside of its jurisdictional boundaries must go to LAFCO;
(a) A city or district may provide new or extended services by contract or agreement outside its jurisdictional boundaries only if it first requests and receives written approval from the commission in the affected county.
(b) The commission may authorize a city or district to provide new or extended services outside its jurisdictional boundaries but within its sphere of influence in anticipation of a later change of organization.
(c) The commission may authorize a city or district to provide new or extended services outside its jurisdictional boundaries and outside its sphere of influence to respond to an existing or impending threat to the public health or safety of the residents of the affected territory if … [certain requirements are met].
(Cal. Gov. Code Section 56133.)
Since the sewer is intended to serve a 300-acre parcel outside the City, it implicates LAFCO’s jurisdiction over an “out of boundary” service extension. (See Ceres v. Modesto (1969) 274 Cal. App. 2d 545.)
3. The California Environmental Quality Act.
In December of 2004, the City made a determination that the sewer line
project was categorically exempt from CEQA. Of course, we do not believe the City ever had jurisdiction to make a valid CEQA determination for land uses on land that is not within its territorial limits.
Nevertheless, the City may have incorrectly applied a statutory exemption, instead of a categorical exemption, to find the project exempt from environmental review. In the review and approval of December 21, 2004, the City stet (sic) on Section 21080.21 of the Public Resources Code to find the project exempt. Section 21080.21 provides:
“This division does not apply to any project of less than one mile in length within a public street or highway or any other public right-of-way for the installation of a new pipeline or the maintenance, repair, restoration, reconditioning, relocation, replacement, removal, or demolition of an existing pipeline. For purposes of this section, “pipeline” includes subsurface facilities but does not include any surface facilities related to the operation of the underground facility.”
Reliance on this section may be misplaced. The total sewer line project greatly exceeds one mile in length. Thus, even though the project – as approved – appears to fit the statute, as the length of the first phase of pipeline installation is 5115 feet, this run afoul of a principle of CEQA that one cannot “piecemeal” a project in order to avoid the applicability of CEQA. (Association for a Cleaner Env’t v. Yosemite Community College Dist. (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 629, 638. A lead agency may not split a single large project into small pieces in order to avoid environmental review of the entire project. Orinda Ass’n v. Board of Supervisors (1986) 182 Cal. App. 3d 1145, 1171.
In the most far-reaching decision on the issue of “piecemealing” development projects, the San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center successfully set aside an EIR for a housing project in Stanislaus County, based on the failure of the project to include construction of sewer lines and construction of a wastewater treatment plant to serve the project. (San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Ctr. V. County of Stanislaus (1994) 267 Cal. App. 4th 713.) In that case the court relied on 14 Cal. Code Regs. Section 15378 (a) which defines the term “project” as “the whole of an action, which has the potential for resulting in a physical change in the environment, directly or ultimately.” Because the sewer expansion had been proposed to serve a housing project, and the housing project could not proceed without an expansion of sewer service, the court concluded that the expansion was an integral component of the housing project.
Second, the pipeline is not located within a public right-of-way. Instead it is located on private property, from which the City got a number of public easement dedications. The acquisition of easements after approval of the proposed project is not in keeping with the claimed exemption.
In addition, the City did not notify the County of its determination as a responsible agency. CEQA sets a standard of communication and cooperation among responsible government agencies with respect to projects.
Lastly, the City did not file a “notice of Exemption” for the pipeline project. (Pub. Res. Code Section 21108.) Although the filing of such a notice is not required by CEQA, it is the standard practice for California government agencies to do so.
According to PMC, consultant to the City, an EIR is being prepared for the City’s sewer and water master plan and this “project” is probably a part of that master plan. WE are concerned that a project has already been approved and constructed that is (or should be) a part of the larger master planning effort that is currently undergoing environmental review.
4. Livingston’s Actions May Have Violated Government Code section 65402.
Section 65402 (b) of the California Government Code states:
“[A] city shall not acquire real property for any of the purposes specified in paragraph (a), nor dispose of any real property, nor construct or authorize a public building or structure, in another city or in unincorporated territory, if such other city or the county in which such unincorporated territory is situated has adopted a general plan or part thereof and such general plan or part thereof is applicable thereto, until the location, purpose and extent of such acquisition, disposition, or such public building or structure have been submitted to and reported upon by the planning agency having jurisdiction, as to conformity with said adopted general plan or part thereof.”
Thus, the City may not authorize a project within the County until the County has determined its consistency with the County’s general plan. If found to be inconsistent, the city council must vote to overrule it. The County was neither consulted nor has the City taken action to overrule the County general plan on the truck line extension.
As you can see from the above, the approval of this project by the City is questionable. The project failed to comport with the City’s jurisdictional authority, the Cortese-Know Local Government Reorganization Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and general land use and planning law.
Your help is sought so that the City may take every lawful action to bring its approval of this project into compliance with these laws, including all appropriate environmental analysis. I also request that the City communicate with and cooperate with the County to make certain this project is carried out in conformance with the law.
It is important that the County and the several cities maintain a cooperative and positive working relationship. It is in that spirit that this letter is provided to you. I hope to hear from you soon.
RUBEN E. CASTILLO
MERCED COUNTY COUNSEL