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In McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood v. City of St. Helena, certified for publication on January 10, 2019, the First District Court of Appeal held that discretionary design review of an otherwise permitted use did not give the City the authority to mitigate environmental impacts and thus the project was not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Amanda Monchamp and Joey Meldrum (representing the developer) worked with the City of St. Helena to defend its approval of an 8-unit residential infill project located in the City’s high-density residential zoning district. The decision holds that CEQA review is not required for a by-right development – even if discretionary design review is required. This decision helps relieve the regulatory and litigation hurdles for much-needed infill housing.

The court focused its attention on the City’s zoning ordinance, which had been amended in 2016 based on a directive from the State Office of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to eliminate discretionary use permits for multi-family residential projects in neighborhoods zoned for high-density residential development. The only remaining discretion was through design review. The court upheld the City’s findings that “the issues addressed during design review did not require the separate invocation of CEQA,” and “the design review ordinances prevented [the City] from disapproving the project for non-design related matters.” Slip Op. at p. 10. The court found CEQA review was not required because the City’s design review process did not give the City “the authority to mitigate environmental impacts” and “the discretionary component of the action must give the agency the authority to consider a project’s environmental consequences to trigger CEQA.”  Slip Op. at 7-8, 13.

Although the City emphasized throughout the administrative process that its discretionary authority was limited to design review, to be conservative, the City analyzed and found the project fit squarely within the Class 32 exemption for infill projects. No exceptions to the exemption applied. The court held that it was “unnecessary to rely on the Class 32 exemption” because the City’s lacked “any discretion to address environmental effects,” and “[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.” Slip Op. at p. 12-13. The court further explained that if the discretionary authority is limited to design review, the agency need not “consider traffic, noise or air and water quality for purposes of the Class 32 exemption.” Slip Op. at p. 10.

This case is notable because it allows for a limited scope of CEQA review if the scope of discretionary authority is limited to design review. Before this case, the only published decision that endorsed a limited scope of CEQA review in the context of subsequent review was San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition v. City of San Diego (2010) 185 Cal.App.4th 924.