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

January 15th, 2019

By: Thomas Law Group

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.

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

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.