Court Holds County’s Abandonment of Rights-of-Way is Not a Project Under CEQA
In an unpublished decision, Delucchi v. County of Colusa, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 231, the California Third District Court of Appeal denied a petition for a writ of mandate challenging Colusa County’s abandonment of purported public rights-of-way and held the abandonment did not constitute a project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The rights-of-way at issue provided access to petitioner’s sixty-acre, landlocked private duck hunting club. Petitioner initially entered into private easements with neighbors to cross the neighbors’ land and access the parcel. When disputes arose with the neighbors, petitioner sued the neighbors and the County, seeking to protect access to his property purportedly as public rights-of-way. Petitioner based his claim on a 1910 subdivision map, which recorded miles of public rights-of-way dedicated by the then-owner and arguably accepted by the County as providing access to the mapped area.
In response to the lawsuit, the County adopted a resolution abandoning the purported public rights-of-way and stating the abandonment was exempt from CEQA.
Petitioner first contended the abandonment was void on its face because the Count did not expressly find the public rights-of-way could not be used for non-motorized transportation. The court rejected this argument explaining the County was only required to consider the evidence presented to it and petitioner failed to satisfy his burden of presenting evidence at the administrative level that the rights-of-way could be used for non-motorized transportation.
To abandon a public right-of-way, the County must find: (1) the right-of-way is unnecessary for present and prospective public use; and (2) the abandonment is in the public interest. Petitioner contended neither element was satisfied. However, the court disagreed and found substantial evidence supported the County’s findings. The court reasoned the rights-of-way were unnecessary because they did not lead to any public land, many ran through irrigation ditches and did not connect to county-maintained roads, and landowners relied of private easements for property access. The court also held abandonment was in the public interest because it avoided litigation costs and promoted the public safety.
The court also rejected petitioner’s contention that the abandonment constituted a project under CEQA. An action is a project only if “the activity may cause a direct, or reasonably foreseeable indirect, physical change in the environment.” The court held there was no direct change because the abandonment did not involve any construction or maintenance activity and any benefit to the environment came from maintaining the status quo. Further, there was no indirect change because petitioner’s speculative claims of landowner’s future conduct did not constitute a “necessary step in a chain of events which would culminate in physical impact on the environment.”
Finally, the court stated that even if the abandonment was a project under CEQA, the common sense exception applied because there was no possibility that maintaining the status quo would have a significant effect on the environment.