Santa Clara County and Stanford to take trails case to California’s highest court
Stanford's plan to provide public trails approved by the County of Santa Clara in 2005 now faces additional delay following an appellate court decision.
In 2006, the Santa Clara County Superior Court dismissed the Committee for Green Foothills' lawsuit challenging the trails plan because it was filed months after the statute of limitations had expired. The Court of Appeal has now reversed that judgment—agreeing that the Committee's complaint was not valid but allowing it to amend the complaint to try to bypass the statute of limitations that applies when a city or county posts the notice that is required by law. The Court of Appeal has not decided on the merits of the case, but has opened the door to continuing litigation over the trails.
"Disregarding the statute of limitations sets a poor precedent," said County Counsel Ann Ravel. "If our system of justice is to work, it has to be based on a fair and reliable framework. The statute of limitations is such an integral part of that framework, and it is unfortunate that the Court of Appeal did not take it into consideration."
The April 10 decision departs from accepted law and infuses the development process with uncertainty. State environmental and planning laws are designed to protect the public interest, and the legislature deliberately provided short deadlines for bringing lawsuits under these laws, recognizing that if such lawsuits are not filed promptly, the public interest is not served. In Government Code section 65009, the legislature stated the point of the statute of limitations deadlines is to avoid "a chilling effect on the confidence with which property owners and local governments can proceed with projects" and "to provide certainty for property owners and local governments."
In December 2005, the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors approved the recommendations of County Executive Pete Kutras pertaining to the Stanford University General Use Permit Trail Requirements. The recommendations were the culmination of several meetings and negotiations with Stanford, as directed by the Board of Supervisors, and they followed public discussion of various aspects of Stanford trail alignments for the preceding five years, since December 2000.
The Committee for Green Foothills did not sue to challenge this agreement until June 2006, outside of the statute of limitations for challenges under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that applies when a city or county posts a notice of its decision. As the California Supreme Court cautioned in Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors, 52 Cal. 3d 553, 576 (1990), CEQA, one of the laws under which this suit was brought, "is not to be subverted into an instrument for the oppression and delay of social, economic, or recreational development and advancement." The court did not find any defect in the notice posted by the county, yet the decision will allow the Committee for Green Foothills to litigate claims regarding the merits of the county's decision.
"We will join the county in an appeal to the California Supreme Court," said Larry Horton, the university's senior associate vice president for public affairs. "The opportunity for public discussion has been extensive. Stanford has acted in good faith and is entitled to move forward on the basis of our agreements with the county."