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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.