February 11, 2010
California Supreme Court rules in favor of Stanford, County of Santa Clara on trails issue
The California Supreme Court has ruled that Stanford University can proceed with its plan to provide public trails approved by the County of Santa Clara in 2005. The state's high court ruled Feb. 11 that a lawsuit brought by the Committee for Green Foothills in 2006 was invalid because it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The unanimous ruling reverses an earlier decision by the state Court of Appeal.
"The judgment of the Court of Appeal is reversed and the matter remanded for entry of judgment in favor of the County and Stanford," Thursday's ruling concluded.
The decision means that Stanford can proceed with the construction of the so-called S1 trail alignment that will run along Page Mill Road. It also paves the way for obtaining local approvals and starting construction on the C1 trail, which would be on land owned by Stanford, San Mateo County and the Town of Portola Valley.
"This is a victory for the county, for Stanford and for the residents of this area who have been denied an opportunity to enjoy the trails for almost four years," said Debra Zumwalt, the university's general counsel. "The S1 trail was started, then stopped by the meritless lawsuit brought by the Committee for Green Foothills. Now we can at last complete the project for the community."
In December 2005, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved the recommendations of the former County Executive 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, dating back to 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. The court did not find any defect in the notice posted by the county, yet the Court of Appeals' decision changed the settled law and opened the door for the Committee for Green Foothills to litigate claims regarding the merits of the county's decision after the normal time to bring such a suit had expired.
In its 2006 decision, the Santa Clara County Superior Court dismissed the Committee for Green Foothills' lawsuit, which challenged the trails plan because it was filed months after the statute of limitations had expired. The Court of Appeal reversed that judgment in April 2008 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 case then went to the state's highest court, which heard the case in December.
"Today's Supreme Court decision restores the certainty that public agencies have relied on for decades regarding the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act," said Miguel Márquez, acting county counsel of the County of Santa Clara. "The Court recognized that California's environmental and planning laws are designed to protect the public interest and that the timeframes put in place by the State legislature ensure that the public interest is served."
The state Supreme Court ruling Thursday stated: "The Legislature clearly sought to place strict limits on the time during which projects may be challenged under CEQA. To this end, it mandated that CEQA suits be brought within 30 days after an NOD [notice of determination] is filed. The Committee has directed us to nothing in the legislative history that suggests the Legislature intended to extend this period sixfold whenever, despite the notice, the plaintiff alleges no true environmental determination was made. The interpretation we reach is also consistent with a key policy served by these statutes: 'the prompt resolution of challenges to the decisions of public agencies regarding land use.'
If a valid NOD has been filed, any challenge to that decision must be brought within 30 days, regardless of the nature of the alleged violation."
"This is a happy day," said Larry Horton, senior associate vice president for public affairs at Stanford. "The Court knocked down the almost four-year roadblock on building the trails. Stanford will resume construction of the S1 trail and will move ahead on the other trails with all deliberate speed. When completed, these trails will be an important recreational resource for the community."