The California Supreme Court has accepted a case of considerable importance to regional park and open space districts. The court will review a decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which ruled that the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District could not sell about 80 acres to a community college district without voter approval.

Park districts say the Fourth District ruling, if upheld, would require districts to conduct elections not only for the sale of land, but also for routine matters such as land transfers and boundary adjustments. One upshot would be a reluctance to acquire new parkland, the districts warn.

The ruling is the first published interpretation of a 75-year-old law, amended in 1985, regarding the disposition of parklands. Public Resources Code § 5540 says that a regional park and open space district "may not validly convey any interest in any real property actually dedicated and used for park or open-space, or both, purposes without the consent of a majority of the voters of the district." The question for the court concerns when a property is "actually dedicated" for park or open-space use.

The appellate court ruled that the land is automatically dedicated when acquired by a regional park and open space district. But that ruling is "contrary to decades of practice," said Carol Victor, assistant district counsel for the East Bay Regional Park District, which § 5540 helped create. East Bay does not consider property "dedicated" for park and open-space use until the Board of Directors approves a resolution, she said.

Like similar districts, East Bay acquires property when it becomes available and often decides on the details of usage and park boundaries at a later date, Victor explained. Sometimes, pieces of an acquired property turn out to be unnecessary, so the district adjusts boundaries and sells the surplus. The district does not seek voter approval beforehand. "It's just not practical to run an election to sell property," said Victor, noting that an election could cost $1 million and delay a transaction by a year. If the ruling stands, the East Bay district would be reluctant to acquire property, she said.

The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District sounded a similar warning in an amicus letter to the state Supreme Court. "While a large majority of the real property interests acquired by the district are dedicated by board resolution for park and/or open space purposes, the ability of the district's board to decide when and whether to formally dedicate such property is critical to the district's overall effectiveness," Deputy County Counsel Phyllis Gallagher wrote. "The district does not have the power of eminent domain. Its dependence on willing sellers makes the district beholden to market exigencies, and requires flexibility in structuring acquisitions so that the district can take advantage of opportunities as they become available. The Court of Appeal's opinion eliminates this flexibility."

In 1995, the Riverside County Regional Parks and Open Space District (for which the Board of Supervisors serves as the governing body) acquired 161 acres from a Wildomar property owner through a purchase and gift. Eight years later — after Wildomar voters dissolved a local park maintenance assessment district — the park district agreed to sell about half of the land to the San Jacinto Community College District, which intends to build a campus for up to 15,000 students on the site. However, Gerard Ste. Marie, who lives nearby, sued, arguing that the district could not sell the land without voters' consent.

The county park district argued that it never "actually dedicated" the land for park and open-space purposes and could therefore dispose of the property as surplus county-owned land. Nothing in the 1995 purchase agreement offered the land for dedication, and the district took no action to dedicate the property for specific use, the agency argued.

But Ste. Marie, who did not hire an attorney for his lawsuit, pointed to Public Resources Code § 5565. That statute says all property acquired by a regional park and open space district is automatically "dedicated and set apart for" park and open-space purposes.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask agreed with Ste. Marie. Although it employed slightly different legal reasoning than Trask used, a three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division Two, also sided with Ste. Marie.

On appeal, the district emphasized the term "actually dedicated," contending that it infers an affirmative act, such as board adoption of an ordinance or resolution. Only then does the property become subject to § 5540's requirement for voter approval. A 1985 amendment to the statute confirmed this view, the district argued. But the court said the 1985 amendment concerned only easements, not the underlying property.

"In light of the legislative purpose in enacting the 1933 legislation, it simply makes no sense that the Legislature's use of ‘actually' was intended to have the effect to which district ascribes," Justice Douglas Miller wrote for the court. "Indeed, to accept district's interpretation would, in essence, render meaningless the language and import of § 5565."

The state high court voted 5-0 (with two justices absent) on February 27 to accept the case. No date has been set for oral argument.

Ste. Marie told the North County Times that the decision to sell the parkland should remain in voters' hands. "They [the county park district] don't want the voters in this area to decide. They want politicians in places other than Riverside County to make the decision," he told the newspaper.

The case is Ste. Marie v. Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District, No. S159319.