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Posts Tagged ‘infill’


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.

SB 50 “Equitable Communities Incentive” Would Exempt Affordable Housing Developments in “Job-Rich” and “Transit-Rich” Areas from Certain Zoning Standards

Friday, December 21st, 2018

California State Senator Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) has introduced Senate Bill 50, the More Housing Opportunity, Mobility, Equity, and Stability (“HOMES”) Act, which establishes the “equitable communities incentive.” This incentive would allow developers to bypass certain local zoning restrictions when building multi-family units that are near transit or employment opportunities in exchange for allocating a portion of the units as affordable.

The Bill exempts multi-family developments from specified zoning restrictions if the project is located either (a) within a half mile of a rail transit station; (b) within a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop; or (c) within a “job-rich” neighborhood. In these special zones, parking minimums would be sharply reduced and zoning codes could not impose height limits lower than 45 or 55 feet, depending on local factors. In exchange, developers who use this incentive will be required to designate an as-yet-undefined portion of new units as affordable housing.

While recent housing policy employs the term “transit-rich” neighborhood, SB 50 adds the concept of a “job-rich” neighborhood. This is defined as a “residential development within an area identified by the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Office of Planning and Research, based on indicators such as proximity to jobs, high area median income relative to the relevant region, and high-quality public schools.” In short, a “job-rich” neighborhood is a residential area with a short commute to jobs, high median incomes, and superior schools. This marks an effort to push development into areas that may have previously resisted it by not being “transit-rich” neighborhoods.

Wiener proposed a similar bill last session, SB 827, which perished in committee review amid opposition from cities and vocal labor, building, and environmental groups largely for failing to provide adequate protections to existing renters. The renewed and revised bill, SB 50, provides a specific protection against the risk of displacement by prohibiting projects on a site that had a housing tenant within the last seven years. Key components of SB 50 include the following proposals:

  • Establishes the “equitable communities incentive” for developers that meet the following criteria:
    • Project must be in a job-rich or transit-rich area (Gov. Code, § 65918.52(a).)
    • Project must be on a site already zoned to allow for housing (Gov. Code, § 65918.52(b).)
    • Project meets SB 50’s affordable housing requirements and, if applicable, the heightened local inclusionary housing ordinance (Gov. Code, § 65918.52(c).)
    • Project site was not occupied by tenants within seven years preceding the date of application, including housing that was vacated or demolished, nor was the site withdrawn from lists as a home for rent within fifteen years (Gov. Code, § 65918.52(d).)
  • Exempts eligible projects from maximum density controls, maximum parking requirements greater than 0.5 spaces per unit, and includes the following:
    • Waiver from maximum height requirements less than 45 feet and FAR less than 2.5, for projects 0.25-0.5 miles from a major transit stop
    • Waiver from maximum height requirements less than 55 feet and FAR requirements less than  3.25, for projects within 0.25 miles from a major transit stop
    • Provides each eligible project up to three incentives and concessions pursuant to the Density Bonus Law (Gov. Code, § 65915.)
  • Permits local governments to modify or expand the terms of the incentive “provided that the equitable communities incentive is consistent with, and meets the minimum standards specific in, this chapter”
  • Delays implementation of SB 50 until July 2020 for “sensitive communities,” areas vulnerable to displacement pressures

Wiener reasons that existing voluntary programs are not strong enough; they allow cities to evade state housing production goals, which causes rent prices to rise beyond affordable levels. Supporters of SB 50 expect that it will increase the pace of construction and add millions of units to help relieve the State’s housing crisis, a key goal for Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. Mayors from many of California’s largest cities have already indicated their support, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff, and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Senate Bills 5 and 6, proposed by State Senators James Beall (D –San Jose) and Michael McGuire (D –Healdsburg), appear to be aimed at getting ahead of SB 50’s spur for high-density housing by reviving tax increment financing for housing development near jobs and transit. That approach, using a portion of property tax growth for housing, was employed by more than 400 redevelopment agencies before Governor Jerry Brown and then-State Senator Darrell Steinberg eliminated it in 2011. According to the Senators, SB 50 is too rigid, communities need flexibility to relieve the housing crisis. In response to such concerns, SB 50 allows economically vulnerable communities to obtain a delay in implementing the zoning changes.

The biggest short-term impact of SB 50 will likely be felt in neighborhoods that are already gentrifying and have a significant amount of housing turnover. Lots with owner-occupied, single-family homes that may have been “flipped” will now be bought by developers who will use the lot to build apartments.

Second District Court of Appeal Finds Secondary Parking Impacts Exempt from CEQA Review, Encourages Project Area Contextualization

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

The Covina Metrolink station a short distance from the project site

In Covina Residents for Responsible Development v. City of Covina, (2018) 21 Cal.App.5th 712, the Second District Court of Appeal held that parking impacts caused by a project are exempt from CEQA review, per Public Resources Code section 21099. Additionally, the Court found that the City of Covina (City) properly tiered from a prior EIR for a specific plan where potential project-specific impacts were addressed in a project-specific analysis and mitigation measures were imposed to address identified impacts. Further, where impacts are statutorily exempt, as they were here for parking impacts, no further analysis is required in the tiered document. Finally, approval of a project tentative map is only appropriate where the local agency makes findings that the map is compatible with objectives, policies, general land uses and programs in the specific plan but need not show perfect conformity.

In 2012, project applicants submitted a proposal to the City of Covina (City) for the construction of a mixed-used urban residential infill project (Project) near the Covina Metrolink commuter rail station. The Project underwent numerous revisions and was repeatedly challenged for its alleged impacts on parking in and around the project site. Ultimately, the City approved the Project and issued a mitigated negative declaration (MND). Covina Residents for Responsible Development (CRRD) filed suit alleging the City was required to prepare an EIR, improperly tiered the MND from the specific plan EIR, and violated the Subdivision Map Act by failing to make necessary findings. CRRD’s principal CEQA challenge focused on the project’s allegedly inadequate parking.

The trial court denied the petition, finding (a) no substantial evidence supported CRRD’s claim that the parking shortage would result in environmental impacts; (b) parking impacts from the Project were exempt from environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21099; (c) the City properly tiered its environmental review from the specific plan EIR; and (d) the City did not violate the Subdivision Map Act. CRRD timely appealed.

The Appellate Court first addressed whether the alleged parking impacts are exempt from environmental review under Public Resources Code section 21099 subdivision (d)(1), which provides, “[a]esthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment.” The Court concluded that parking impacts need not be addressed in the City’s environmental analysis because Section 21099 specifically exempted such analysis for infill sites within a transit priority area. The Court established that the Project was within a transit priority area and that the City had no obligation to analyze parking impacts caused by the Project.

The Court noted that the statutory intent of the bill was to address climate change and the state’s long term environmental goals and to build on prior statutes, including AB 32 and SB 375.

The Court then dismissed Petitioner’s claim that the MND improperly tiered from the specific plan EIR. Traffic impacts from a parking shortage related to an infill project, as discussed above, are exempt from CEQA review though were nevertheless adequately considered in the specific plan EIR.

Finally, the Court dismissed CRRD’s claim that the City’s findings relating to the consistency of the Project’s tentative map were not supported by substantial evidence. Government Code sections 66473.5 and 66474 require local agencies to make findings related to consistency with the specific plan and design of the project. Here, the Court determined the City adopted all necessary findings and CRRD failed to identify evidence in the record that the Project was incompatible with the specific plan.

Key Point:

Public Resources Code section 21099 exempts project parking impacts from CEQA review when the project is contextualized in an urban infill setting.

Where impacts are statutorily exempt, no further analysis is required in a tiered EIR.

Approval of a project tentative map is only appropriate where the local agency makes findings that the map is compatible with objectives, policies, general land uses and programs in the specific plan but need not show perfect conformity.

Governor Brown Releases CEQA Reforms in an Effort to Simplify the Approval Process for Infill Projects

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Sacramento, January 25, 2012.  Today Governor Brown released a package of CEQA reforms designed to simplify and expedite the approval process for key job-creating projects in California.  The package of CEQA reforms provide the regulatory changes necessary to implement SB 226 (Simitian), which the Governor signed October.

Upon finalization, these reforms will simplify the approval process for infill projects by eliminating repetitive studies of environmental effects already addressed in other planning documents, such as general plans and zoning codes.  This will help reduce the time and cost often associated with infill projects, while also allowing cities to focus on new or unique projects that help create jobs, revitalize cities and promote transit.  SB 226 also removes hurdles to harnessing solar energy and growing green-collar jobs by exempting solar projects located on existing rooftops and parking lots.

Earlier this month, Governor Brown issued proposed implementation guidelines for AB 900 (Buchanan), signed last September.  AB 900 sends CEQA litigation for certain large projects directly to the Court of Appeal and requires a decision on the merits in a short time frame.  The law also offers immediate help to projects that provide California with the most economic and environmental benefit.

The SB 226 guidelines, released today, can be found at http://www.opr.ca.gov/s_sb226.php.  The AB 900 guidelines, released last month, can be found at http://opr.ca.gov/s_californiajobs.php.

Written By:  Tina Thomas and Ashle Crocker

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For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.