The First District Court of Appeal Affirmed a Judgment Holding that CEQA Review Was Not Required for a Multifamily Residential Project Subject Only to Design Review

In a decision published on January 10, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment denying two local groups’ petition for writ of mandate seeking to overturn the City of St. Helena’s approval of a multifamily residential project. McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group, et al. v. City of St. Helena, et al. (2019) ___Cal.App.5th ___. In this case, the city’s approval authority for the project was limited to design review under the local zoning ordinance. The court held that because the city lacked any discretion to address the project’s environmental effects, the city properly determined CEQA review was not required.

Between 2015 and 2016, the City of St. Helena amended its general plan and zoning ordinance to eliminate the requirement to obtain a conditional use permit for multifamily projects in High Density Residential (HDR) districts. Since this change, multifamily residential projects are a permitted use in HDR districts and require only design review approval. Real Party in Interest Joe McGrath applied for design review approval to construct an 8-unit residential project within an HDR district. McGrath also applied for a demolition permit to demolish an existing single family home on the site.

In October 2016, the city’s planning staff prepared a report that concluded (1) the project was exempt from CEQA under the Class 32 infill exemption (CEQA Guidelines § 15332); and (2) the project met the design review criteria. At the planning commission hearing for the project, several neighbors and community members opposed the project on various environmental grounds, including that the project site is contaminated, the street has inadequate drainage, the area lacks open space, and the project would cause cumulative impacts with another proposed development. Opponents of the project also contended that the project design was inconsistent with the design of the neighboring historical homes.

During the planning commission hearing, the city attorney advised the members of the commission that, under the city’s zoning ordinance, the commission was required to approve the project if it met the city’s design review criteria. The city attorney added that while he was confident the Class 32 infill exemption applied, CEQA also did not apply because it was a non-discretionary project. The planning commission approved the project, and adopted findings that the project was exempt from CEQA and would not cause any significant environmental effects.

At the city council appeal hearing, the city attorney similarly advised the members of the council that the project was exempt from CEQA under the Class 32 infill exemption, but at any rate their review was limited to the project design. The council voted 3-2 to deny the appeal and uphold the planning commission’s approval. The council adopted a resolution containing numerous detailed findings to support the design review approval. The council also found that the Class 32 infill exemption applied, but, even if some level of CEQA review was required, the city was limited to reviewing design-related issues and not the use-related environmental impacts the project opponents had raised.

The McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group and St. Helena Residents for an Equitable General Plan filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the city council’s approval as a violation of CEQA and local zoning laws. The trial court denied the petition. The groups’ appeal followed.

The primary issue on appeal was whether the city abused its discretion by approving the project without requiring an environmental impact report (EIR). The appellants argued that the Class 32 infill exemption requires the city council to determine that the project would not result in any significant environmental effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, and water quality. According to the appellants, the city council could not properly have done so because it reviewed only the project design.

The court disagreed and held that, irrespective of the Class 32 exemption, the city council correctly determined that the scope of its discretion was limited to design review and no CEQA review was required. As the court explained, under the city’s design review ordinance, the city council could not disapprove the project for non-design related reasons. In this case, the court found that substantial evidence supported the city council’s findings that the project met the design review criteria and would not result in any design-related impacts.

With regard to the Appellants’ design-related concerns, the court rejected the notion that CEQA review was required for those concerns alone, at least for the project at issue. Quoting from the First District’s decision in Bowman v. City of Berkeley (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 572, 592 (Bowman), the court stated, “[W]e do not believe that our Legislature in enacting CEQA . . . intended to require an EIR where the sole environmental impact is aesthetic merit of a building in a highly developed area.” Furthermore, the court added, “[w]hile local laws do not preempt CEQA, ‘aesthetic issues like the one raised here are ordinarily the province of local design review, not CEQA.’ ‘Where a project must undergo design review under local law, that process itself can be found to mitigate purely aesthetic impacts to insignificance . . . .’” (Quoting Bowman at p. 594.) While the court recognized that St. Helena is not as urban as Berkeley, the location of the Bowman project, it nonetheless found that “the principles of that case apply to the design review in this case, which cannot be used to impose environmental conditions.”

The court next rejected the appellants’ argument that the mere fact the city had some discretionary authority in the design review process made the project subject to CEQA. According to the court, the rule that a project will be deemed discretionary for purposes of CEQA if it requires both discretionary and ministerial approvals “applies only when the discretionary component of the project gives the agency the authority to mitigate environmental impacts.”
Finally, the court found that it was unnecessary for the city to rely on the Class 32 infill exemption because the city lacked any discretion to address the project’s non-design related environmental effects. The court also found it was unnecessary to address the appellants’ argument that the Class 32 exemption did not apply based on the “unusual circumstances” exception. According to the court, “[b]ecause CEQA was limited in scope to design review whether or not the Class 32 exemption applied, any exception to the exemption was irrelevant.”

-Collin McCarthy