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CEQA Updates

Keeping You Up-to-Date on the California Environmental Quality Act

Posts from January, 2019


First District Finds Design Review Does Not Make Entire Project Subject to Discretionary Review

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

In McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group v. City of St. Helena (2018) 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 1233, the First District Court of Appeal held that the City’s design review process did not require the separate invocation of CEQA; the City complied with CEQA where it was at its discretion to find the express content of the design review ordinance limited its review.

The City of St. Helena (City) approved a demolition permit and design review to demolish a single-family home and develop an eight-unit multifamily residential building (Project). The site’s zoning designation of “high density residential” established that multifamily housing was a permitted use, subject to design review. The Planning Commission found that the Project was a categorically-exempt infill project (CEQA Guidelines, § 15332) and approved it.  McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group (McCorkle) appealed the decision to the City Council.

The City Council found that the Project met the design standards under the applicable zoning designation and approved the Project. In doing so, the Council found that the Project met all 14 required design review factors and that the design review ordinance prevents the City from disapproving the Project for any non-design-related reasons. The Council also found that a Class 32 infill exemption to CEQA applied and the Project would not “result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality or water quality.” The City’s resolution specifically stated that the exemption finding “was consistent with the City’s limited discretion to consider or address environmental impacts [where] ‘Multi-family residential land uses are permitted by right in the [zoning] District.’” The City thus concluded that “in the context of this design review approval, the [City’s] authority/discretion is limited to (design related) concerns stemming from the only discretionary actions required for project approval.” McCorkle filed suit.

McCorkle alleged that the City was incorrect to find that its design review process did not require the separate invocation of CEQA. Further, McCorkle alleged that the City improperly found the Project a categorically-exempt infill project and abused its discretion for not requiring the preparation of an EIR. McCorkle also alleged that the City Council improperly delegated CEQA authority to the Planning Commission. The trial court denied the petition for writ of mandate. McCorkle timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first held that there was no improper delegation of the City and City Council’s authority under CEQA. The Planning Commission was the initial reviewing agency, but that did not mean that the City Council had abdicated its project review duties to the Planning Commission. Instead, following an appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision, the City Council took independent action in finding the Project exempt and approving the Project. There was no improper delegation.

The Court then disagreed with McCorkle’s claim that, because the City had discretion to conduct design review, the entire Project was discretionary and subject to CEQA. McCorkle relied on the general rule that, where a project involves both discretionary and ministerial approvals, the entire project is deemed discretionary.  However, the Court concluded that the rule “applies only when the discretionary component of the project gives the agency the authority to mitigate environmental impacts.” Here, the design review process allowed the City to change the appearance of the Project, but the general plan and design review standards did not provide a means for the City to mitigate impacts to parking, traffic, safety and soil remediation. Thus, the City did not abuse its discretion in finding that the design review ordinance did not mandate that the City consider disapproving the Project for non-design related matters.

Echoing the holding in Friends of Davis v. City of Davis (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 1004, the Court found that the City was not, pursuant to general law, required to have a design review ordinance. Where the City chose to impose an additional level of review, “it is for the City to determine the scope that such review will entail.” Thus, the City’s understanding of its own ordinance was afforded great deference as “the [CEQA] Guidelines recognize that the application of CEQA to a local ordinance is dependent upon the scope and interpretation of the local ordinance, rather than vice versa.” The Court found this explanation in line with CEQA Guidelines section 15040, which expressly limits an agency’s authority under CEQA to only powers expressly or impliedly granted to the agency by other laws. 

After finding that the City was not required to mitigate non-design related environmental impacts, the Court found it unnecessary to evaluate the City’s reliance on the CEQA exemption for infill projects. Because the Project was consistent with the general plan and the City addressed Appellants’ argument to the contrary “in great detail,” there was no need for the Court to continue its analysis.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s holding.

Key Point:

A municipality’s design review process does not always require the separate invocation of CEQA.


Note: This case was originally unpublished. January 11, 2019 the court ordered its publication on the request of the California Building Industry Association, California Infill Builders Federation, Treasury Wine Estates Americas LLC, and the California Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Third District Holds City’s Explanation and Substantial Evidence Supported Traffic Impact Conclusion, Discharge of Writ of Mandate Proper

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

In reviewing whether the City of Sacramento complied with a peremptory writ of mandate issued by the Sacramento Superior Court (East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2016) 5Cal.App.5th 281 (ESPLC I)), the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the City had explained and provided substantial evidence supporting both its traffic threshold and its conclusion that the traffic impact was less than significant. (East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City v. City of Sacramento (2018) Cal.App. Case No. C085551.)  In ESPLC I, the Court faulted the City’s use of a General Plan threshold because, the Court concluded, the threshold was not supported by substantial evidence.

Real Parties in Interest, Encore McKinley Village, LLC, proposed a 328-unit residential development (Project), which is now 80% built out. As pertinent here, the Project EIR recognized that the Project potentially impacted four intersections in the core and, utilizing the level of service (LOS) standard from the City’s General Plan, concluded that there would be no significant impacts to traffic. The City of Sacramento (City) reviewed the Project application, certified the Project EIR, and approved the Project. East Sacramento Partnership for a Livable City (ESPLC) filed suit.

The trial court denied the petition for writ of mandate, finding the EIR sufficient. ESPLC appealed. In ESPLC I, the Court of Appeal held that the EIR was sufficient except for its reliance on the General Plan LOS standards without explanation. Specifically, the City was in error in relying on the LOS standards as an automatic determinant that traffic effects at the four intersections in the core were not significant. In doing so, the City failed to provide substantial evidence to support the finding of no significant traffic impact. “The fact that a particular environmental effect meets a particular threshold cannot be used as an automatic determinant that the effect was or was not significant.” Accordingly, the Court remanded the case.

The trial court then entered judgement in favor of ESPLC and issued a preemptory writ of mandate to rescind and set aside the EIR’s certification until the City brought the transportation and circulation sections of the EIR into compliance with CEQA. The City recirculated and certified a revised EIR. The trial court found the revised EIR was sufficient and discharged the writ. ESPLC appealed the order discharging the writ.

ESPLC alleged that the City failed to provide substantial evidence to support the conclusion that the Project’s impacts on traffic at the four intersections in the core are insignificant. ESPLC claimed that it was insufficient to merely provide evidence and an explanation to support the choice of threshold of significance for traffic impacts. ESPLC contended that the City was instead required to prepare a new traffic study to support its determination. The City responded that, among other things, the appeal should be dismissed as untimely.

Here, the Appellate Court held that ESPLC I only asked that the City provide an explanation and substantial evidence for the City’s determination to use the flexible LOS standards. The Court then found that it was to review for abuse of discretion because compliance with a writ is, for all practical purposes, an attempt to comply with CEQA.  

The Court found the revised EIR provided substantial evidence supporting the City’s determination that there would be no significant traffic impacts at the challenged intersections in the core. The revised EIR provided an explanation of how the flexible LOS policy promotes infill development and achieves environmental benefits by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the revised EIR explained that vehicle delay is not a physical impact on the environment and is preferable to roadway expansion as the latter increases VMT. These conclusions were supported by staff opinions, legislation, studies of flexible LOS, evidence of VMT in the area, and comments from Regional Transit, the Air District, and Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

ESPLC contended that the revised EIR should have studied and quantified the alleged reductions in VMT and greenhouse gas emissions in the Project area. The Court held that it was only required that the City provide “sufficient information and analysis to enable the public to discern the analytic route the agency traveled from evidence to action.” Because the City provided sufficient explanation and substantial evidence to support its selection of the threshold of significance for the traffic impacts, the Court affirmed the judgment.

The Court further established that the appeal was not untimely. A post judgment order, like that issued by the trial court discharging the writ, extends the time for filing a notice of appeal. Relying on City of Carmel-by-the-Sea v. Board of Supervisors (1982) 137 Cal.App.3d 964, the Court held that an order relating to the enforcement of a judgment is appealable. Thus, the discharge order, finding the return to the writ adequate, was an appealable post judgement order and subject to reconsideration. As such, the appeal was timely.

As a final point, the Court granted the City’s motion to strike ESPLC’s argument that the City admitted the traffic impacts were significant as defined by the 2030 General Plan because it could have been raised earlier and ESPLC failed to show why the issue was raised for the first time in their reply brief. The Court further noted that adoption of a 2035 General Plan mooted arguments based on the 2030 General Plan.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s discharge of the writ of mandate.

Note: This case is currently unpublished. Pursuant to California Rules of Court, the deadline to request publication is 20 days from filing –Wednesday, January 16, 2019.