Home » Case Summaries » 2003 » Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency


Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency



At issue in this case was an appeal by the Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, 243 California plaintiffs, and 9 Nevada plaintiffs (Association) of a district court’s dismissal of its case against the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA). Specifically, the Association’s challenges arose from TRPA’s issuance of a regional plan in 1987 that formed an Individual Parcel Evaluation System (IPES). Each of the plaintiffs’ parcels received an IPES score in either 1987, 1988, or 1989 and no plaintiff was challenging their scores in this matter. The IPES system also established a pass-fail line based on a determined score. Any parcel receiving a score above the line was eligible to submit an application for development. The plan then allowed TRPA to choose three hundred applications each year to whom it would award development permits. The IPES system also included a variance for those parcels that had scores within ten percent of the pass-fail line. These parcels could be eligible to submit an application for development if they completed a water quality mitigation project or paid a mitigation fee.

The IPES system did not fix the score for the pass-fail line because the 1987 plan required TRPA to recalculate the line each year. In 1999, the Agency reset the line in Nevada for two affected counties and it retained the line in California for two affected counties. TRPA made these adjustments according to the formula set forth in the initial 1987 plan.

This litigation dates back to July 1, 1987. In 1991 and 1992, the Association filed complaints against the TRPA alleging takings of private property without just compensation because the 1987 plan prohibited development for property with scores below the IPES line. These complaints were consolidated by the district court and the court dismissed the complaints because they were barred by the statute of limitations. The Association continued to litigate the issue concerning the statute of limitations for six years. Finally, the district court applied the state personal injury statutes and dismissed the complaints as being time barred. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that dismissal.

The current action involved a new complaint from the Association, of which all individual plaintiffs were members. The Association asserted that the 1987 plan implemented between 1987 and the present caused unconstitutional takings. In addition, the Association alleged that the Agency’s 1999 decision to maintain the IPES pass-fail line was improper. With respect to this new complaint, the district court considered three groups of plaintiffs. The court first considered the property owners in stream environment zones (SEZ plaintiffs). With respect to these plaintiffs, the court found that their claim accrued in 1989 when they were notified of their land classification, an IPES score of zero. In addition, the court considered the property owners whose land fell below the IPES pass-fail line (IPES plaintiffs). With respect to these plaintiffs, the court found that their claims accrued in 1990 because the equation to adjust the line was fixed at the time. Therefore, the Association’s new complaint was barred by the statute of limitations. Finally, the court considered the plaintiffs whose land score fell within ten percent of the pass-fail line (Ten Percent plaintiffs). With respect to these plaintiffs, the court concluded that if their claim was a facial challenge it would be barred by the statute of limitations; however, if their claim was an as-applied challenge, then their claim would be unripe. The court dismissed the Association’s equal protection claim as time barred.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court; however, it applied the doctrines of res judicata and ripeness to affirm the dismissal of the claims. The court explained that the doctrine of res judicata would apply if there was “‘(1) an identity of claims, (2) a final judgment on the merits, and (3) privity between parties.'”[1] Considering the first requirement, whether there was an identity of claims, the court explained that if “‘the same transactional nucleus of facts'”[2] governed the claims then there would be identity of claims. The court noted that in its earlier litigation the Association protested the SEZ plaintiffs’ land scores and the IPES pass-fail line, which were implemented pursuant to the 1987 plan, and which were the subject of the Association appeal. Therefore, the Association’s claims arose out of the same nucleus of facts and any of them could have been asserted in previous lawsuits. The court explained that the plan’s factual and legal parts were fixed in 1987 and that TRPA’s actions of line setting in 1999 were nondiscretionary and involved no new set of facts.

With respect to the final judgment on the merits requirement, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “a dismissal on statute of limitations grounds [was] a judgment on the merits.”[3] With respect to the requirement that there be privity between the parties, the court noted that several of the same parties were participants in this suit as had participated in the earlier suit. For example, the Association, thirty-three of the California plaintiffs, and three of the Nevada plaintiffs were the same. Concerning the other plaintiffs, the court explained that there must be a sufficiently close relationship between the initial plaintiffs and the current plaintiffs for there to be privity. The court explained that an organization or unincorporated association could create privity. The court found that the Association adequately represented the interests of its members, that the Association had the authority to bring claims on behalf of its members, and that the Association had defended vigorously for its members for a long period of time. In addition, the court explained that if

individual members of the Association were not bound by the result of the former litigation, the organization would be free to attack the judgment ad infinitum by arranging for successive actions by different sets of individual member plaintiffs, leaving [TRPA’s] capacity to regulate the Tahoe properties perpetually in flux.[4]

Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held that the SEZ and IPES plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

The court then considered the claims of the Ten Percent plaintiffs. The court explained that a facial challenge by these plaintiffs would be barred by res judicata because the claims involved the same mitigation program that was included in the 1987 plan, and therefore, the prior litigation could have addressed these claims. However, with respect to an as-applied challenge, the court found that the plaintiffs’ claims were not ripe because none of the member plaintiffs had attempted to pursue the mitigation options that were set forth in the plan for those parcels whose scores fell within ten percent of IPES pass-fail line. Thus, the court explained that it could not evaluate whether this restriction was unconstitutional without a final decision with the regulation applied. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held that the Ten Percent plaintiffs’ claims were unripe.

[1] Tahoe-Sierra Pres. Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Reg’l. Planning Agency, 322 F.3d 1064, 1077 (9th Cir. 2003) (quoting Stratosphere Litig. L.L.C. v. Grand Casinos, Inc., 298 F.3d 1137, 1143 n.3 (9th Cir. 2002)).

[2] Id. at 1078 (quoting Stratosphere Litig. LLC. v. Grand Casinos, Inc., 298 F.3d 1137, 1143 n.3 (9th Cir. 2002)).

[3] Id. at 1081 (citing Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 228 (1995)).

[4] Id. at 1084.

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