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On December 18, 2018, the First Appellate District, in McCorkle v. St. Helena (A153238), affirmed the trial court’s denial of a Petition for Writ of Mandate challenging the City of St. Helena’s approval of a multi-dwelling residential development.  First, consistent with Public Resources Code section 21151 and interpreting case law, the court held that the City Council properly delegated to nonelected officials—the Planning Commission—the project’s design review.  Second, the court found that the City did not have discretion regarding the environmental effects of the project because the City zoning code properly limited its authority to design issues.  Therefore, the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) did not apply.  Having determined that CEQA did not apply, the court found that it did not need to address whether the City properly found the project to fall within the Class 32 infill exemption under CEQA Guidelines section 15332.

Background

In 2015, the City began the process to amend its General Plan to conform to state policies, eliminating conditional use permit requirements for multi-family dwellings in High Density Residential (“HR”) districts.  In 2016, the City amended the Zoning Ordinance to comply with the General Plan.  Consistent with these changes, real party in interest, Joe McGrath, purchased a lot in a central St. Helena HR district intending to demolish the existing structure and build an eight-unit multi-family dwelling (the “project”). McGrath submitted a design review application to the Planning Commission.  The Commission staff found that McGrath had completed the application satisfying the criteria for design review and that the project was considered infill, subject to CEQA’s Class 32 exemption.  After the hearing, and at the advice of the City Attorney, the Commission concluded it could not deny the permit.  The Council—by a vote of 3 to 2—affirmed, finding: (1) the application was consistent with the City’s General Plan; (2) Class 32 exemption for infill development applied; and (3) in the alternative, the decision was nondiscretionary necessitating no CEQA review.

Petitioners, McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group and St. Helena Residents for an Equitable General Plan, brought suit against the City and the Council arguing: (1) the City improperly delegated the decision to nonelected officials; (2) a Class 32 exemption required consideration of the project’s potential significant effects on traffic, noise, air quality, and water quality under Guideline section 15332(d); (3) the unusual circumstance exception to a Class 32 exemption applied; and (4) the project was inconsistent with the General Plan.

Delegation to Unelected Officials under Public Resources Code 21151

Public Resources Code section 21151(c) states a nonelected decisionmaking body’s decision that a project is exempt from CEQA compliance may be appealed to an elected decisionmaking body.  A majority of the appropriate elected decisionmaking body must decide the appeal of that determination.  However, precedent states this does not mean that an elected council cannot adopt a nonelected commission’s determination.  Here, the City made its own determinations on the design review.  Thus, the court found that the City had not violated the Code or precedent.

Scope of City’s Review and Non-Discretionary Act

Because CEQA is triggered only by discretionary actions on the part of an agency under Public Resources Code section 21080, a primary issue in the litigation involved whether the City exercised discretion in approving the permit.  While the City had some discretion, the City found, and the court agreed, its discretion was “limited to design issues such as scale, orientation, bulk, mass, materials, and colors,” without authority to mitigate environmental effects.  Further, multi-family housing in HR districts required no conditional use permits, constraining the City’s authority to deny the permit on the basis of environmental concerns.  While projects involving both discretionary and non-discretionary actions may be deemed discretionary—and subject to CEQA—the discretionary aspect of the decision must consider a project’s environmental consequences.  Design review elements are not considered environmental.  Because the City’s design review ordinance prevented disapproval of the permit for issues unrelated to design, the court found the action non-discretionary, falling outside of CEQA.  Without discretion, CEQA exemptions were unnecessary, mooting the additional arguments advanced by petitioners.

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