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When a title owner sues to partition property, then the matter is relatively straightforward. On the other hand, when a person claims to be an owner of property but does not appear on the title, can they still sue to partition property?

Who can sue for partition?

A legal titleholder—as well as the holder of an equitable title to an undivided interest—may sue to establish his or her right, and to obtain a division of the common property. (Varni v. Devoto (1909) 10 Cal.App. 304.) Not all equitable titles, however, are created equal. Indeed, the partition statute explicitly lists the types of equitable interests that may have a right to seek recourse through partition.


Everyone agrees that there is a shortage of affordable housing in California. There are many possible solutions to this problem, one of the solutions was the Legislature’s passage of AB 1486.

What is the purpose of the Surplus Land Act?

Government Code section 54220 sets the stage for the other provisions of the Surplus Land Act.


The acquisition of private property for eminent domain usually proceeds on a long timeline. Before the government actually uses eminent domain to acquire private property, there is a substantial amount of planning. During the pre-condemnation period, which can stretch for years, a governmental entity often has the opportunity to make land use decisions about property that it intends to acquire.

While there is nothing out of the ordinary with making land use decisions pending condemnation, per se, it can become problematic when those decisions lower the value of the land that will eventually be taken. In those situations, there is a question about whether the property owner in that situation can recover from the diminution in value.

Unreasonable Delay is Compensable

One reason partition actions are a good option is that there is generally an absolute right to partition, but every rule has exceptions. In a partition action, the main exception is when the parties have executed a partition agreement. Generally, the right to partition can be waived by an express—or implied—agreement between co-tenants. (CCP § 872.710; Penasquitos, Inc. v. Holladay (1972) 27 Cal.App.3d 356, 358.)

What is required for a partition agreement?

A partition agreement may be an express statement that the right to partition is waived. It may also be evidenced by a right of first refusal where one co-tenant is required to offer the property for sale to another co-tenant as a condition precedent to an action for partition. (Harrison v. Domergue (1969) 2724 Cal.App.2d 19, 21.)

When there is so much real estate to buy in California, it may not be clear why anyone would benefit from purchasing surplus land in the first instance. After all, it requires going through a negotiation process with a public entity and may take longer than other land purchases. There are some drawbacks to buying “surplus land” from a public entity. The question, then, is whether there are any benefits of buying surplus land.

Are there any ways that buying Surplus Land is beneficial?

Government Code section 54225 provides that any public agency disposing of surplus for “low- and moderate-income housing purposes may provide for a payment period of up to 20 years in any contract of sale or sale by trust deed for the land. The payment period for surplus land disposed of for housing, and low- and moderate-income families may exceed 20 years. Still, the payment period shall not exceed the term that the land is required to be used for low- or moderate-income housing.”


In many ways, partition actions are relatively straightforward. Generally, in a partition action, the two property owners cannot agree on its use, and one of the owners asks the court to sell the property so each can go their separate ways.

The question arises of whether one of the two persons actually owns the property in the first instance. When there is a question of whether one of the parties is an owner, can you contest title in a partition action? The answer is “yes,” as one of the primary purposes of a partition action is a determination of title.

Generally, at trial, the court must determine whether the plaintiff has the right to partition. (CCP § 872.210(a).) A question of ownership of property, as presented in a partition action, may be one of fact or law, depending on whether the determination of the issue involves a decision on conflicting facts or the application of the law to a stated set of facts. (Lieb v. Superior Court (1962) 199 Cal.App.2d 364.)

The revised Surplus Land Act contains negotiation requirements to encourage the sale of surplus public land. Also, the law makes it more likely that the land will ultimately be developed for as much housing as possible. Prior to entering negotiations, however, AB 1486 requires that the agency selling the surplus land must first give notice.

Government Code section 54222 states that “Any local agency disposing of surplus land shall send, prior to disposing of that property or participating in negotiations to dispose of that property with a prospective transferee, a written notice of availability to all of the following [list of persons]. (emphasis added.)”

By the use of the mandatory term, shall, this section mandates notification and therefore ensures that the widest possible array of interested persons will be able to compete to develop the surplus land.

When two parties jointly own property but cannot agree on its use then the sale of the property by a “partition” action is frequently a great remedy to solve the dispute. This tool, however, is not available in all circumstances. While a “partition by sale” makes a lot of sense with regards to a single-family home, it may not make as much sense when the land at issue is vacant undeveloped land. In that instance, a partition by division—the simple division of the property—may be the best outcome for all the parties. A partition by division, however, raises the question of how to account for unequal contributions to the property.

Amounts Paid For Partition Action

Code of Civil Procedure section 873.250 provides that where a division of property cannot be made equally among the parties according to their interests, without prejudice to any party, then compensation may be required to be made by one party to another to correct the inequality. This is commonly called “owelty.”

Everything old is new again. Or so it seems. Sometimes a new thing really is new. In this case, the question is whether the new Surplus Land Act is truly as big of a change as touted. After all, there was a Surplus Land Act before, and there’s a Surplus Land Act now. What’s the big deal?

New Designation Requirements

One small, but powerful, change is that AB 1486 requires an entity disposing of surplus land to send a notice of availability to the Department of Housing and Community Development (the “Department”), rather than upon written request. This is part of the new “master list” requirements whereby the Department is now required to maintain a master list of available surplus land available. (see Gov. Code § 54222(a)(2).) By requiring each entity to send the information to the Department, instead of requiring the Department to request such information, AB 1486 makes it easier for prospective purchasers to understand what is available.

The purpose of this article is to address the goals that California’s Surplus Land Act was designed to accomplish.

The article will address the prior version of the Surplus Land Act, the changes to definitions made in 2019, and provide a big-picture perspective on its aims.

In 2019, the California Legislature re-made the Surplus Land Act in significant ways. Just three of those ways are addressed here.