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Court Addresses “Presumptively Legal” Parcels Under Subdivision Map Act | Money and Dirt

California real estate and deed of trust disputes | courtroom war stories and lessons learned

Court Addresses “Presumptively Legal” Parcels Under Subdivision Map Act

California’s Subdivision Map Act (“SMA”) governs the legal subdivision of property in California. The SMA’s approval process is familiar to most developers.  The statute’s purpose is to ensure orderly and coordinated development by public authorities so that the public services needed by newly created parcels do not cause undue burdens on taxpayers.

The SMA allows parcels created before March 4, 1972 to be considered “presumptively legal” under some circumstances.  Government Code section 66412.6(a) provides:

For purposes of this division or of a local ordinance enacted pursuant thereto, any parcel created prior to March 4, 1972, shall be conclusively presumed to have been lawfully created if the parcel resulted from a division of land in which fewer than five parcels were created and if at the time of the creation of the parcel, there was no local ordinance in effect which regulated divisions of land creating fewer than five parcels.

Section 66412.6(a) limits the power of local agencies to deny development permits for parcels meeting the statute’s requirements.

In an opinion recently published by California’s First Appellate District — Crescent Trust v. City of Oakland (publication order here and modification order here) — the court addressed whether a lot with origins in a 1854 neighborhood map qualified for the presumption of legality under section 66412.6(a).

Facts: Lot created by neighborhood map in 1854; transferred by deed as a separate parcel multiple times afterward

Crescent Trust acquired property in Oakland, California in 2015.  The property consisted of Lots 17, 18, and parts of Lot 16 as reflected in a neighborhood Map of San Antonio filed with the County Recorder’s Office in 1854 and recorded in 1869.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the lots that Crescent later acquired were transferred together several times by grant deed.  The deeds for those transfers referred to the parcels as separately identified lots by referencing the Map of San Antonio, rather than as a single lot.  At the time of the transfers, there was no local subdivision ordinance in effect.

Crescent applied to the City of Oakland for a certificate of compliance for Lot 18, but the City refused to issue the certificate on the grounds that Lot 18 had been “merged” with other parcels, and therefore needed to be formally divided anew.

Crescent filed a petition for writ of mandate.

Trial court: writ denied; Lot 18 not a legal parcel

During the trial court proceedings, the City dropped the “merger” argument, contending instead that Lot 18 “was never lawfully created” because it had not previously been conveyed as a “separate” lot.

The trial court denied the writ, siding with the City’s various arguments that Lot 18 was not a legal parcel.

Crescent appealed.

Court of Appeal: reversed; Lot 18 presumptively legal based on prior creation and deed transfers as a separate parcel

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s judgment, and directed the trial court to grant a writ requiring the City to issue a certificate of compliance for Lot 18.

The Court rejected the City’s argument that Lot 18 had to be “separately and individually conveyed to work a legal subdivision of the property.”  The court confirmed that “a single deed can convey multiple parcels.”  The court also stated that “a deed can sufficiently describe the property conveyed by referencing the map (including an antiquated map) that depicts it and … a metes and bounds description is not required.”

Here, while the deeds conveyed Lot 18 along with other parcels totaling fewer than five, Crescent’s lots “were separately described in every conveyance.”  As such, the requirements of section 66412.6(a) were met, and Lot 18 was presumptively valid.


Under the Crescent Trust opinion, the requirements of section 66412.6(a) can be met even if the parcel in question was not transferred “separately and individually.”  A single deed can convey multiple parcels, and as long as those parcels are adequately described as separate and the other requirements of section 66412.6(a) are met, the parcels will be presumptively valid under the SMA.