In an unpublished decision filed November 6, 2017, the First district Court of Appeal upheld a County decision to approve a design review application for a market and grocery store renovation project. (Case No. A150043) The petitioner appealed from a trial court decision, which found application of the CEQA exemption proper.

Marin County first issued a building permit for the construction of a market-style building in 1954. This building was expanded multiple times over the years and included multiple uses, such as a recycling center and bank. The market closed in 2010, and the building owner submitted an application to renovate the building and establish new market/grocery operation in 2014. The renovations included numerous aesthetic changes and improvements to the building exterior, landscaping, and parking lot. In 2015, the County Planning Commission approved the application. Petitioner appealed to the Board of Supervisors, arguing CEQA exceptions applied to overcome the exemption. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to deny the appeal, and Petitioner filed suit.

After the trial court proceedings, the First District Court of Appeal rejected petitioner’s argument that two exceptions applied to the CEQA exemption relied upon by the County. First, the Court upheld the County’s determination that no unusual circumstances existed which would invalidate the CEQA exemption. The Court deferred to the County’s reasoning that the application was a like-for-like use, so no potentially significant impacts would result due to unusual circumstances. Second, the Court rejected Petitioner’s argument that the cumulative impact exception applied. This exception disallows use of a CEQA exemption where the cumulative impacts of successive projects of the same type in the same place, over time, are significant. The Court agreed with the County that the exception was inapplicable in this case, as the project did not implicate multiple types of similar projects in the same area. Rather, the market replaced an existing market, and would remain the only market in the area.

The First District’s unpublished decision continues a trend of upholding CEQA categorical exemptions in the post Berkeley Hillside environment. When possible, applicants and lead agencies should rely on categorical exemptions, which remain far more defensible than negative declarations.