Formation Of Extra-Territorial District For Water System Is Upheld
The controversial formation an assessment district that includes territory outside the water district that will receive the money has been upheld by the First District Court of Appeal. The court rejected arguments that Solano County manipulated the formation and election processes to circumvent residents who objected to the county's plans.
After seven years of discussion and study, landowners in the rural English Hills north of Vacaville approved formation of the Rural North Vacaville Water District in 1996. Based on one-parcel, one-vote, landowners approved the district 285 to 40. The district, in the court's description, "follows a somewhat crazy-quilt pattern, excluding from its perimeter those parcels with water wells …"
County officials then proposed an assessment district to pay for a water system. They proposed zone 1, which consisted of lots within the water district, and zone 2, composed of 233 parcels just outside the district boundaries. Parcels in zone 1 would pay about $20,000 each, which would fund water hookups and fire hydrants. Lots in zone 2 would pay about $2,400 apiece for fire hydrants. The county then conducted an election, with votes weighted in proportion to the potential financial obligation. Under this voting method, the assessment district passed 79% to 21%.
Landowners in zone 2 filed a lawsuit alleging that the assessment district election violated the state and federal constitutions, that formation of the assessment district required environmental review, and that county officials had conspired with landowners inside the water district to ensure development and block opposition. Solano County Superior Court Judge Franklin Taft ruled for the county. A unanimous three-judge panel of the First District, Division Four, upheld the decision.
Courts give local governments broad discretion in creating assessment districts and will overrule the legislative decision only when there has been an abuse of discretion, Justice Patricia Sepulveda wrote for the court. In this instance, the assessment district was justified because the landowners received special benefits, such as potentially increased property value, potentially reduced fire insurance rates, and enhanced safety in a fire-prone area that lacks adequate water to fight a conflagration.
As for the weighted voting, the court held that Proposition 218 from 1996 (California constitution articles XIII C and D) required special assessments to be approved "according to the proportional financial obligation of the affected property."
The weighted voting process did not violate the federal one-person, one-vote requirement because both the U.S. Supreme Court and the state Supreme Court have recognized exceptions for special purpose entities that benefit a defined set of constituents. Moreover, giving a landowner who would pay only $3,000 the same vote as a landowner who would pay $20,000 "would have produced an anomalous disproportionality," Sepulveda wrote.
As for the environmental review, the court held that formation of an assessment district was not a project under the California Environmental Quality Act. Formation of the water district itself may have qualified as a project requiring environmental review, but the assessment district was created simply to recognize economic benefits and impose a corresponding fiscal burden, the court ruled.
As for the alleged conspiracy, the court said that the landowners failed to provide proof. Instead of collecting their own evidence, the landowners relied solely on the legislative record, which was unconvincing.
"We recognize that excluding petitioners from voting on the formation of the water district, while permitting them to cast weighted ballots in the subsequent assessment district voting (with reduced voting power) may smack of an inherently unfair way of administering the financing of local public improvements," Sepulveda wrote. "On the record made below, however, we discern no illegality."
Not About Water Committee v. Solano County Board of Supervisors, No. A092383. 02 C.D.O.S. 998, 2002 DJDAR 1217
For Not About Water: Paul Norton McCloskey, Wagstaffe & Wagstaffe, (650) 366-9593.
For the county: James Laughlin, county counsel's office, (707) 421-6140.