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Municipal law expert wins Fordham award

Daniel J. Curtin Jr. first became interested in land use as an undergrad at the University of San Francisco, when his political science professor addressed it as an issue of importance and sent Curtin to several seminars for study.

Daniel J. Curtin Jr.

He was hooked.

More than 45 years later, he remains hooked and in fact says he finds the subject of land use even more interesting now. "It continually changes," Curtin said. "As society changes and gets more demanding, land use changes with it."

Although some land use questions generated controversy when Curtin first began to practice law in 1958, they have become increasingly contentious with the passage of time. "Not In My Backyard" is the mantra of many California communities.

"We all want health care facilities," Curtin said. "Just don't put them next to us."

In recognition of a career devoted to advancing the practice of state and government law, Curtin will receive the Fordham Lifetime Achievement Award at the ABA meeting in San Francisco this month. The award is presented by the ABA's State and Local Government Law Section.

Curtin began his career in 1959 with a six-month stint as assistant secretary to the California Senate at a time when the legislature met for only six months before going into a one-and-a-half year interim session. He spent the next 18 months as counsel to the Assembly Committee on Municipal and County Government, now known as the Committee on Local Government.

He moved on to the city of Richmond, where he spent four years as assistant city counsel and watched the development in 1965 of a law that required residential developers to build parks in new subdivisions.

As city attorney of Walnut Creek, a job he held for 17 years, Curtin defended the city when it was sued by a trade group opposed to the new law. Curtin remembers the test case as his finest hour.

Associated Homebuilders v. City of Walnut Creek went to the California Supreme Court, which upheld the new law. At the time then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown signed the legislation, both the attorney general and the legislative counsel had expressed their belief that it would not withstand a legal challenge. Only a Yale Law Review article suggested otherwise.

Curtin won the case in 1971 and it continues to be cited by California courts. And, of course, he added, parks have been created by real estate developers throughout the state as a condition of construction.

Curtin was a partner with McCutchen Doyle Brown & Enersen (now Bingham McCutchen) in Walnut Creek until his retirement two years ago. Now 70, he works as special counsel at McCutchen, where he's scaled back to "part time" 40 hours a week.

Over the years, he has written countless publications and several books, most prominently "Curtin's California Land Use and Planning Law," now in its 23rd edition and used widely by attorneys and public officials as well as city planners. He also wrote two books about the Subdivision Map Act.

And for more than a decade, he has been active in helping craft environmental laws for developing nations through the World Juris Association, an organization formed in the 1950s to help solve global problems through law. He helped draft regulations recently adopted in Poland to prohibit construction of industrial plants in residential areas.

He also is a member of the ABA Central and East European Law Initiative, a public service project that works to advance the rule of law in the world, helping draft a new constitution in Albania in 1991.

Asked what achievement makes him most proud, Curtin said he believes he is the only attorney in the country to receive top awards from three national groups honoring his municipal work.

In 1988, he received a distinguished leadership award from the American Planning Association; in 1992, he received the Charles S. Rhyne Award for Lifetime Achievement in Municipal Law from the International Municipal Lawyers Association (a group of city attorneys), and now the ABA honor.

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