Frequently Asked Questions – Land Use

LAND DIVISIONS

What is a Lot?
A lot is a unit for land which has an identifiable area and a boundary description.

What is he difference between a Lot and a Parcel?
Parcel is the short reference for an Assessor’s Parcel. The Assessor of the County where the land is located identifies pieces of land (parcels) for appraisal and tax purposes only. An Assessor’s Parcel is not necessarily a legal lot as the Assessor is not required to follow legal lot boundaries and is not directly involved in the process of approving subdivisions.

What is an Assessor’s Parcel Number?
The County Assessor assigns a number to each identified parcel. A single Lot may be assigned several Assessor Parcel Numbers (APN). The Assessor must recognize separate ownership of portions of the assessed land even if that means assigning separate APNs to portions of an illegally divided Lot.

How are Lots created?
Under current law, the creation of new lots is commonly called a subdivision and refers to the division of an existing Lot into two or more Lots. The division (creation) becomes effective when an approved subdivision map is recorded or by recording a change in ownership interests by sale, financing, lease or gift. If an owner of a single Lot sells half and retains the other half, that would create two new Lots. This creation by transfer is sometimes referred to as a division by deed and prior to the California Subdivision Map Act (Act) unlimited Lots could be created this way. Now, these divisions would be illegal if they are not exempt from Act requirements.

What is a Legal Lot?
A legal Lot is one which was, at the time it was created, in compliance with the applicable laws whether that means created in accordance with the Act, exempt from the Act or created by conveyance prior to the Act.

What is an Illegal Lot?
The conveyance of a portion of an existing Lot through sale, lease, gift or finance without proper government review and approval creates an illegal Lot. However, if a Lot was created legally but is considered illegal under today’s laws, that Lot may be considered “legally nonconforming”. That means that as long as the Lot was legal when created, it may be used as a legal Lot now.

What does it mean if the Lot you own is illegal?
The use, conveyance and development of illegal Lots is restricted.
A. Building permits will not be issued until the violation is corrected (Lot made legal).
B. The sale of an illegal Lot may be voided at the option of the purchaser.
C. If the seller had actual or constructive notice of the illegality, the buyer may sue for damages.

Can you be prosecuted for owning an Illegal Lot?
It is unlawful to create an illegal Lot and the law imposes restrictions on the use and conveyance of illegal Lots created by others. Therefore, if you own an illegal Lot you may be served with a Notice of Violation – or more likely, initially, a letter from the County, or the District Attorney, setting forth the violation(s). The primary objective, in most counties, is to assure orderly development of these Lots and that would be inconsistent with prosecution but would indicate a willingness to encourage voluntary compliance. Do NOT ignore the initial letter as that may lead to your prosecution for a misdemeanor.

Why didn’t the title company tell me my lot was illegal?
Title companies insure ownership. They are not concerned with how the Lot was created or how it can be used. While it is possible that that the title underwriter may ask the County for verification that a title transfer meets the requirements of subdivision laws and ordinances, that is not common practice and may only be indicated if there is some Notice in the public record which requires further inquiry (ie, a recorded Notice of Violation or a missing Certificate of Compliance).

What is a Certificate of Compliance?
It’s a certificate approved and signed by the Development/Planning Director stating that real estate property complies with the County Subdivision Code and the State Subdivision Map Act and is recognized as a legal parcel (or legal parcels).

When do you get a Conditional Certificate of Compliance?

The Planning Department will do a title chain search of your parcel, and if the parcel is found to be created in violation of State or County subdivision laws, the Department will issue you a Conditional Certificate of Compliance, which is to say that the property owner must fulfill the conditions (usually dedications of rights-of-way) prior to effectively having their parcel designated a legal lot.

What can a Buyer do to avoid buying an Illegal Lot?
Buyers can inquire, and perhaps should inquire should circumstances suggest the possibility (ie, land purchase, old structure that will be torn down), about the legal status of the Lot prior to purchase by contacting the County Planning Division. Buyers can also ask the seller to provide a copy of the Certificate of Compliance or Conditional Certificate of Compliance prior to purchase.

What can I do to legalize my Lot?
You can apply for a Conditional Certificate of Compliance – Parcel Map (Conditional Certificate). The issuance of a Conditional Certificate legalizes the lot for purposes of sale, lease or financing. The Conditional Certificate also identifies the conditions and improvements (ie, roads, water, access) that would have been required on the date the innocent purchaser (prospective seller) their interest in the property. In some cases, the lot must meet current standards including lot size, but if the Lot is found to be legally non-conforming, the standard that applies will most likely be the date the Lot was created. All conditions must be met before any development can occur on the property.

When should I apply for the Conditional Certificate?
You do not need to submit an application until such time as you decide to build or sell the property. However, if you want to use the land before you start building you should apply prior to any use.

CHANGES TO CONTIGUOUS LOTS

What is a contiguous Lot?
Lots are considered contiguous if they share a common boundary or if they are only separated by a narrow strip (such as a road or stream) but can reasonably be developed as a single project. Where lots meet only at a property corner and have no boundary line in common, they would not be considered contiguous.

What is Merger?
The combining of two or more contiguous Lots into one Lot is referred to as a Merger.

What is a Lot Line Adjustment?
A lot line adjustment (LLA) is the process that is used to change property lines of existing parcels. The process can be used to do a number of things, such as: combine up to four (4) adjacent parcels into one (1) parcel, alter the boundary between up to four (4) parcels, or reconfigure the shapes of up to four (4) parcels. The parcels involved do not have to be owned by the same party.

As authorized under the provisions of Section 66412 (d) of the State Subdivision Map Act, a lot line adjustment may be approved between two or more existing adjacent parcels where the land taken from one parcel is added to an adjacent parcel, and where a greater number of parcels than originally existed is not thereby created.

Are there restrictions that apply to LLAs?
All lot line adjustment cases receive a comprehensive review required to determine consistency with zoning and subdivision regulation. As a general rule, as long as you do not make the smaller parcels smaller (add land to larger parcel) you will most likely be at least as much in compliance as you were prior to the LLA.