A turf battle between two local agency formation commissions has concluded with an appellate court ruling that a commission from one county has jurisdiction to determine a sanitary district’s service area in another county.

The issue decided by the Third District Court of Appeal is this: When a special district provides service in two counties, which county local agency formation commission (LAFCO) has jurisdiction over planning matters concerning the district’s work within an individual county? The court ruled that the LAFCO from the “principal county” — defined as the county with the most assessed value of the district’s taxable property — has jurisdiction, even if the planning matters in question occur in another county.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Placer County LAFCO against Nevada County LAFCO regarding the Truckee Sanitary District (TSD), which provides wastewater collection in the High Sierra. The TSD is one of nine special districts that provide service to portions of both counties. Nevada County LAFCO is the principal county for six of those districts, include TSD.

Truckee Sanitary District proposed a sphere of influence expansion in Placer County that would overlay a substantial portion of the Northstar Community Service District’s existing sphere of influence. The Northstar district provides a variety of services, including wastewater collection. In 2002, Placer County LAFCO asked the court to determine which LAFCO had jurisdiction over the proposed sphere of influence proposal and which agency had authority to prepare a municipal service review for sewer services within Placer County.

Sierra County Superior Court Judge William Pangman, sitting by assignment to the Placer County Superior Court, ruled that Nevada County LAFCO — the principal county — should determine the sphere of influence and perform the municipal service review. However, Judge Pangman also concluded that Placer County LAFCO could conduct its own service review, even if it could not determine the sphere of influence. Placer County LAFCO appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Third District upheld the lower court.

There is no dispute that Nevada County is the principal county. Rather, the case turned on the interpretation of the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act (Government Code § 56000 et seq.), which governs local agency formation commissions. The law defines changes of organization as “a city incorporation/disincorporation; a district formation/dissolution; an annexation to, or detachment from, a city or district; a consolidation of cities or special districts; a merger or establishment of a subsidiary district.” The law defines sphere of influence as “a plan for the probable physical boundaries and service area of a local agency.” Local agency formation commissions conduct municipal service reviews to prepare and update spheres of influence.

Placer County argued that under the statute, the principal county has jurisdiction over only “changes of organization” affecting other counties, and not over spheres of influence or service reviews in other counties. Because TSD was not proposing a change of organization or reorganization, Placer County LAFCO contended that it had jurisdiction over the sphere of influence request and service review.

The court disagreed. “[C]hange of organization is what the [Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg] Act is all about. It is why all LAFCOs exist, whether or not they are the LAFCOs of principal counties,” Justice Richard Sims III wrote for the Third District. “Once the principal county comes into being, we see no impediment to the Legislature giving the principal county jurisdiction over additional matters beyond changes of organization — matters such as spheres of influence and service reviews.”

Placer County LAFCO made numerous arguments centered on local control and the intent of Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg, which is to discourage urban sprawl and provide for efficient provision of services.

“However,” the court responded, “having a neighboring county (as opposed to the state) determine a sphere of influence for a multi-county district does keep the matter local, and having one county determine the sphere of influence for a multi-county district (as opposed to multiple counties within the district each determining their own sphere of influence for the district) is consistent with the objectives of planned growth and discouragement of urban sprawl.”

Placer County LAFCO cited the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research’s “Local Agency Formation Commission Municipal Service Review Guidelines and Appendices,” and the 2000 report from the Commission on Local Government for the 21st Century, “Growth Within Bounds: Planning California Governance For The 21st Century.” The latter report was the basis for the overhaul of the then-Cortese-Knox Act. Placer County LAFCO argued that the OPR guidelines do not give exclusive jurisdiction to a principal county, and that “Growth Within Bounds” talked about limiting principal county jurisdiction to changes of organization.

The court, though, was unconvinced. The court also rejected the contention that the trial court’s ruling was inconsistent because Judge Pangman ruled that although Nevada County LAFCO had “exclusive jurisdiction” over the service review, Placer County could conduct its own review.

“We see nothing wrong with Placer County studying or reviewing services within its border,” the Third District ruled. “Its reviews simply do no constitute the ‘service reviews’ that will be used to establish and update spheres of influence under the Act for multi-county districts for which Placer County is not the principal county.”

The Case:
Placer County Local Agency Formation Commission v. Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission, No. 06 C.D.O.S. 410. Filed January 13, 2006.

The Lawyers:
For Placer County LAFCO: William M. Wright, (916) 783-2946.
For Nevada County LAFCO: P. Scott Browne, (530) 272-4250.
For Northstar Community Services District: Neil Eskind, (530) 583-5536.
For Truckee Sanitary District: Ruthann Ziegler, Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson (916) 556-1531.