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Solimar Research

District Trumps City For Providing Wastewater Service, Panel Rules

Mar 1, 2002
A sanitation district has exclusive jurisdiction to provide sewer service to an area annexed by Corona, and the city cannot interfere with that right, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled. The lawsuit was forced by the Riverside County Local Agency Formation Commission's decision 16 years ago not to decide who would provide sewer service to the area. Formed under the Sanitary District Act of 1923 (Health & Safety Code § 6400 et seq.), the Home Gardens Sanitary District has provided sewer service to the area near the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and East Sixth Street since 1963. In 1986, the Riverside County LAFCO approved Corona's application to annex the territory. LAFCO identified the potential for the duplication of sewer services by Home Gardens and the city, but LAFCO simply suggested that the two entities work things out. They didn't. Instead, the city in 1999 adopted a policy for the area that said a property could connect to the district's sewer only if the property fronted on a street with a district sewer line, if there were no city sewer line in that street, and if the district had signed an interagency agreement with the city. Otherwise, the city required the property to connect to the city's sewer line. Home Gardens sued, and Riverside County Superior Court Judge Sharon Waters struck down the city policy. Judge Waters also ruled that both the city and Home Gardens have the right to provide sewer service to the area. Both sides appealed. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division Two, upheld Waters decision to invalidate the city policy. But the appellate court went further and ruled that Home Gardens has the sole right to provide sewer service to the area. In the published portion of its opinion, the appellate court addressed three questions: Was the lawsuit filed too late? Can the city interfere with the district's exercise of statutory powers? Does the district have the exclusive right to provide sewer service? The city argued that Home Gardens filed the lawsuit way too late because LAFCO decided the matter years ago. But the court held that the challenge was not untimely because "LAFCO ducked the issue by leaving it to the city and the district to resolve." Thus, the lawsuit was not contesting a LAFCO decision because there was no LAFCO decision. On the second question, the city argued that its police powers allow it to decide how sewer service is provided within the city limits. Again, the court disagreed. Home Gardens "is a creation of state law and is exercising the authority conferred by state law to collect and treat sewage," Justice Art McKinster wrote for the court. "Any attempt by the city to exercise its police powers in a way that limits the district's statutory authority conflicts with state law and is void." The city pointed to a similar dispute decided in favor of a city in City of Fresno v. Pinedale County Water Dist., (1986) 184 Cal.App. 3d 840. However, the result there was different because Fresno is a charter city and Corona is not, the court held. As for exclusivity, the court again noted the superiority of state law over local ordinances. "State law authorizes the district not only to construct its sewers in any public street, but also to ‘compel all residents and property owners in the district to connect their houses and habitations and structures … with the sewers.' Here, the district has constructed those sewers and has adopted that requirement. Its decision that it will be the sole provider of sewer service within its boundaries has the force of state law," McKinster wrote. The Case: Home Gardens Sanitary District v. City of Corona, No. E029777, 02 C.D.O.S. 1467, 2002 DJDAR 1777. Filed February 11, 2002. The Lawyers: For Home Gardens: Alan Burns, Harper & Burns, (714) 771-7728. For Corona: Victor Wolf, Best, Best & Krieger, (909) 686-1450.