An appellate court has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging St. Helena’s approval of Joe McGrath’s 8-unit housing project on McCorkle Avenue.

In a ruling issued Dec. 18, California’s 1st Appellate District upheld a Napa Superior Court ruling rejecting neighbors’ claims that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by treating the project at 632 McCorkle Ave. as a simple design review and not subjecting it to more rigorous environmental review standards.

The three-judge panel ruled that the Planning Commission and City Council were justified in declaring the project exempt from CEQA because it only required design review, not a use permit, and would have qualified for a CEQA exemption anyway as an infill housing project.

To comply with state housing policies, the city had amended its zoning ordinance in 2016 to make multi-family dwellings a “by right” use in the High Density Residential zoning district. Those projects no longer require use permits and the more stringent CEQA review standards that go along with use permit applications.

The commission approved McGrath’s project 2-1 in December 2016. On appeal, the council approved it 3-2 in January 2017, despite opponents’ arguments that the city should have considered factors like parking, traffic, safety and soil contamination.

The lawsuit was filed by the McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group and St. Helena Residents for an Equitable General Plan. Vickie Bradshaw, speaking on behalf of those groups, said the plaintiffs were disappointed by the ruling and haven’t decided whether to seek review by the California Supreme Court.

“A key policy issue learned from this decision is that Council members should not pass resolutions drafted by staff that contain findings on specific issues that the Council was prevented from even discussing, considering, let alone deciding,” Bradshaw wrote in a statement.

McGrath said he was pleased with the outcome of the case, but “there are no winners here.”

“Defending this lawsuit has driven up the cost of the McCorkle project by nearly 15 percent over budget,” he wrote in a statement. “St. Helena loses, as this lawsuit has deterred, and will continue to deter, other quality developers from building highly-needed, affordable, small, quality infill projects that tuck neatly into neighborhoods.

“Median income workers lose, as the full absorption of the legal defense costs alone would, if passed on, translate to nearly $500/month rental premium for each 2-bedroom apartment unit. And most of all, the community loses, as taking a litigative versus collaborative approach creates rancor and division that makes this community a less desirable place to live and work.”

McGrath said he looks forward to putting the eight rental units on the market in the early spring of 2019 and thanked Montelli Construction, Navone Construction, and the other local crews who built the project.

Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, City Manager Mark Prestwich and City Attorney Tom Brown declined to comment on the case.

“That being said I do think it’s important for our community to remain informed about local government activity and we will endeavor to provide information as soon as we can do so,” Ellsworth said.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.