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Housing advocates file suit against Los Altos for blocking project

Downtown project sought streamlined process under new by-right housing law SB 35

A lawsuit filed against the city of Los Altos alleges that city staff -- and later the City Council -- illegally blocked a housing project that complied with California's new by-right housing law.

The civil suit, filed last month, contends that a proposed development in downtown Los Altos qualified for a streamlined approval process for housing projects under Senate Bill 35, legislation passed in 2017 to boost housing growth across the state. The project proposed building a mixed-use building at 40 Main St. with 15 housing units, but was shot down in April after the City Council concluded it didn't meet the criteria to skip the normal planning process.

The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) caught wind of the decision and filed the lawsuit on June 12. Members of the group say that Los Altos' city leaders violated SB 35 by failing to cite an "objective" rationale for blocking the project, and likely did it to wiggle their way out of approving a project they didn't like. The suit seeks to void Los Altos' denial of the project and compel the city to approve the application.

This is one of the first lawsuits in California challenging denial of a project based on SB 35, the group's lawyers say, giving it the potential for a precedent-setting judgment.

The city of Los Altos has received a copy of the civil case but cannot comment on pending litigation, Deputy City Manager Jon Maginot told the Voice.

The project in question has a long and storied history spanning 12 years, with evolving plans proposed by property owners Ted and Jerry Sorensen that have been denied by the city multiple times. Perhaps the biggest change came in November last year, when the all-office project was scrapped in favor of a mixed-use development with 15 apartments, seeking to capitalize on a new state law that allows streamlined approval of certain housing projects.

SB 35, which took effect in January 2018, limits the ability of local governments to block housing projects that meet zoning requirements and "objective" standards, exempting them from conditional use permits and certain parking requirements. The by-right housing law was specifically aimed at cities that have used discretionary approval to stymie housing growth. In addition to following local zoning rules, projects only get to glide through the planning process if they provide enough affordable units, and two-thirds of the development must be for residential uses.

Despite the project being designed explicitly with SB 35 in mind, city planning staff in December swiftly rejected the idea that the proposal was subject to the provision of the state law. Among the reasons, staffers argue the application was incomplete; the project did not meet parking standards for the area, fell short of required two-thirds residential uses; and at five stories, was far too tall and dense to meet zoning standards for downtown Los Altos. At an appeal hearing on April 9, the City Council doubled down on the staff's determination and denied streamlined approval of the project.

Ben Libbey, a paralegal for CaRLA, told the Voice that his group caught wind of the denial and got involved in early April. While his organization is small and can't fight on behalf of every housing project, Libbey said the litigation against Los Altos has the makings of important legal precedent for a law that hasn't been in place for long.

"The law was passed, it's been used a number of times now in different municipalities and, in this case, Los Altos basically didn't really want to follow the letter of the law," Libbey said.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit, CaRLA attorneys believe that Los Altos failed to cite objective standards that the project proposal violated within a 60-day window set forth under SB 35. In the lead-up to the April 9 appeal hearing, the lawsuit claims the city dug up a handful of new standards with which the project allegedly conflicted in an "attempt to retroactively legitimize its rejection."

Whether the city's determination that the project failed to provide "adequate" access and egress to parking qualified as an objective standard used to deny the project is also being challenged.

Some of the rationale used for the city's denial of the project isn't even up for debate, Libbey said. The city of Los Altos initially disputed that residential parking spaces on the site should not be calculated as part of residential square feet of development. Melinda Coy, a senior policy specialist for the state's Housing and Community Development department, told the developer's attorney in an email April 9 in no uncertain terms that parking for residents does, in fact, count as residential use.

One of the big questions at the April 9 appeal hearing was whether 40 Main St. in Los Altos can exceed height and density limits imposed on downtown projects, double-dipping on state and local density bonuses, while simultaneously receiving streamlined approval for being in compliance with zoning standards. The project seeks to use the California State Density Bonus law to increase the size of the project by 35% in combination with a Los Altos city ordinance allowing an 11-foot height increase, bringing the height of the building up to 66 feet. The maximum height for downtown buildings is 30 feet.

Though the appeal for the project on April 9 was ostensibly about its qualifications as a SB 35 project, there was a clear undercurrent of opposition to the project's sheer size. Public speakers at the meeting decried a "tidal wave of overbuilding" that puts a damper on the quality of life in Los Altos, advocating for the quaint village feel of the downtown corridor.

Coy, in her email to the project's attorney, again indicated that state law may fall on the side of the developer. A project using the state's density bonus law or a local density bonus ordinance is still considered consistent with objective zoning standards.

Though the City Council was given a copy of the email, it's unclear whether it factored into the decision to deny the project. Councilwoman Neysa Fligor asked her colleagues to "disregard" the guidance provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development because city staff weren't able to weigh in on the answers.

Sonja Trauss, a plaintiff in the case and co-executive director of CaRLA, said the proposed project in Los Altos should be seen as an example of SB 35 working -- getting the Sorensens to convert an all-office project into a primarily residential development in the midst of a regional housing crisis. Cities have been slow to adjust to the new law, either because they are actively recalcitrant or because they can't keep up with all the changes in government code.

"I don't think that's the situation in Los Altos," Trauss said. "They know what they're doing -- they might be a small city but they're a rich city."

Though it's a pretty small housing project to launch a rousing legal defense, Trauss believes the case could be an exciting opportunity to get a judge to say the 60-day timeline under SB 35 must be enforced. It would also further signal to cities that have a history of blocking housing projects -- including wealthier suburbs on the Peninsula -- that the bevy of new and future state laws are going to make it harder to ignore the housing crisis.

"The judges and the communities have allowed them to flout the law," Trauss said. "And a lot of cities think we're still in that situation."

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Comments

9 people like this
Posted by biking parent
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 28, 2019 at 9:53 am

biking parent is a registered user.

LOL.

LOL again. What frail village Los Altos is that it can't make room for 15 more families.

Housing is needed through out the Bay Area. Los Altos is part of the Bay Area so Los Altos needs to step up and help solve the problem.


2 people like this
Posted by The Business Man
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2019 at 12:51 pm

The Business Man is a registered user.

WOW,

If this case does get decided in favor of the housing advocates, this will put a lot of burdens on the City of Mountain View. Given that the city has not yet acted in compliance with the new laws as described in this article.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

THe new state laws are in effect being resisted by many cities. Especially the ones made enforceable as of Jan 1, 2019 which include incusionary housing and no "net-loss" affordable housing requirements to all of the cities of California.

THe State of California is tying to fix the problem in steps. The state will if met by further resistance, create even more drastic laws that will further remove city government descretion because all citizens of California must be treated alike no matter where they live. It is long past time that theses cities and developers start cooperating to prevent this.


17 people like this
Posted by AV Joe
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 28, 2019 at 2:16 pm

Mountain View is one of the more progressive cities on the peninsula. Drive along El Camino Real and you see dozens of multi story apartments being built. Sunnyvale has done the same. Now we need Los Altos to step up.


4 people like this
Posted by an opinion
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2019 at 9:02 am

It would be helpful to know what the other components of the contested project were.

If office, how many square feet? Current metrics put one worker for every 150 to 250 square feet (where 250 square feet is rare for new or renovated construction). If the project includes 100,000 square feet of office, then we should expect between 400 - 660 new employees on a parcel that adds 15 new homes.

If the construction mandate petitioner claims “residential parking is residential square footage,” then is the parking area for the other uses counted in the remaining 2/3rds ratio of “non-residential square footage”?



8 people like this
Posted by more opinions
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2019 at 9:51 am

@an opinion, you seem to think a housing law shouldn’t worsen the housing shortage by dragging in hundreds of workers from Tracy and Stockton to fill the excess jobs this sham of a project would bring in? And read the comments, can’t make room for 15 units of housing, people really need to wake up and see an office development for what it is: a developer’s cash cow. And along comes Build Baby Build CaRLa to bumble around suing people when San Francisco drags in 165,000 workers from places far and wide every day...they need to find a fix for their own back yard and stop making it worse while hiding behind sloppy laws which are abused for office builds.


5 people like this
Posted by an opinion
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2019 at 11:30 am

I see SB 35 as State legislation drafted for the specific benefit of the wealthiest global investors and marketed as "housing law".

This article was published on 7/28/2019 at 8:48 am with no details other than the project is "mixed use" with 15 housing units and proposes building heights of 66 feet on a parcel zoned for a maximum building height of 30 feet. As presented here, we have no way of knowing how many jobs will be created relative to the number of housing units.

It's a glaring omission to describe only the housing component of any "mixed use" development proposal. I hope the Mountain View Voice Editorial Board permits the journalist to republish the article with all the facts.

Or, if "Housing Advocates File Suit Against Los Altos for Blocking Project" is a sponsored post, then include the proper disclosures so readers aren't unknowingly investing time trying to make sense of a press release when they are expecting fair and balanced journalism.


5 people like this
Posted by SteveD
a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 29, 2019 at 12:42 pm

They whine and complain about building too much in Los Altos, but they have no problem when they proposed a charter school, that has been fighting for space for years in Los Altos, to set-up shop here in Mountain View. There's already too much construction here, with much of it housing.

Time for NIMBYs in L.A. to start taking on their share of dense, affordable housing and lose the fantasy of Los Altos being a "quaint village" at a time when there are so many homeless who are in that situation by no fault of their own.


4 people like this
Posted by SteveD
a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 29, 2019 at 12:51 pm

"Posted by an opinion
a resident of another community
1 hour ago

I see SB 35 as State legislation drafted for the specific benefit of the wealthiest global investors and marketed as "housing law"."


Then you need to take the blinders off and look at all the families living in motor homes or even in the streets.

The cost of housing is far outrunning that of income. This is no get-rich scheme, but I can see how the well-to-do in exclusive towns with strict development rules might use such an excuse to keep "undesirable" people out....You know those undesirables....People like those with limited incomes.....The poor, to be specific.

Don't want any of THEM around L.A....it would ruin the "quaint, village-like" atmosphere, right?


14 people like this
Posted by psr
a resident of The Crossings
on Jul 29, 2019 at 2:29 pm

psr is a registered user.

Nauseating. Forcing towns to build when the resident don't want it. The "progressives" have no problem forcing others to their will, yet complain that every conservative is a "fascist" for doing what the people want. Crazy.

In case you missed it, this is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. If the people in Los Altos see the hot mess that is now Mountain View, with soulless highrises, overcrowding and traffic, and decide they don't want any part of it, they should be allowed to opt out. That's why we have different towns and states.

Liberals won't be happy until everybody is forced to suffer under their oppressive rules. If one town is ruined by their stupidity, then, by God, all towns should have to suffer. Ignorance and tyranny of the majority.

I suppose once California becomes a complete pit, the liberals will finally be happy. Since anyone with any money and a little common sense will flee eventually, that time should be soon.


6 people like this
Posted by psr
a resident of The Crossings
on Jul 29, 2019 at 2:34 pm

psr is a registered user.

@Steved
If you want to be "fair", then you should back building a school in MV. MV and its drive to overbuild the area, especially the area that falls within the LASD borders, should provide another school for the children they are bringing in.

Try putting your money where your mouth is. You want to build housing? Fine, then provide the SERVICES to go with it, and that includes schools.


4 people like this
Posted by an opinion
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2019 at 4:06 pm

It's a package. Add 15 homes and some number of jobs (still not specified in this article) in excess of 15 and the demand for housing exceeds what the rejected project would have built. And, with the statewide requirement to build 15% below market rate housing units (and no more than 15%), at best, the project would have added 2 new BMR units to Los Altos.

I don't dispute the 2 new units are needed and necessary for the individuals or families who would have lived in them. But, on balance, any jobs created in excess of the total housing units included in the project make the regional housing shortage worse.


Like this comment
Posted by The Business Man
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2019 at 8:45 pm

The Business Man is a registered user.

In response to psr you said:

“Nauseating. Forcing towns to build when the resident don't want it. The "progressives" have no problem forcing others to their will, yet complain that every conservative is a "fascist" for doing what the people want. Crazy.”

WOW. You went way overboard claiming progressives call ALL conservatives “fascists”. This just seems like you are trying to provoke a conflict and not discuss the real problems regarding housing. You said:

“In case you missed it, this is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. If the people in Los Altos see the hot mess that is now Mountain View, with soulless highrises, overcrowding and traffic, and decide they don't want any part of it, they should be allowed to opt out. That's why we have different towns and states.”

Unfortunately, if you want to get the benefits regarding the economic power of being a part of Silicon Valley, there is no way to avoid having to provide the affordable housing resources established by the ABAG RHNA study found here (Web Link). Los Altos has an unmet need of 169 very low income housing and 99 low income housing. Mountain View is in more serious situation they need 814 very low income housing and 492 low income housing units. So this simply must be done, if not done, the state will be forced to make more drastic laws to force affordability in housing you said:

“Liberals won't be happy until everybody is forced to suffer under their oppressive rules. If one town is ruined by their stupidity, then, by God, all towns should have to suffer. Ignorance and tyranny of the majority.”

No this is just unbelievable to see someone state. Using religion as a weapon and not providing any means to work to resolve the affordability housing problem. The fact is that those cities have exploited the shortage of housing to establish a method to prevent those they consider “undesirable” into their communities. They are against anyone that is not in “their league” it isn’t just “race”. You said:

“I suppose once California becomes a complete pit, the liberals will finally be happy. Since anyone with any money and a little common sense will flee eventually, that time should be soon.”

Again, what an “elitist” attitude. Simply saying you are not even trying to work on the problem. Your opinion, “I win only if I only win. Any situation which allows for all to win means I lose.” This is the mindset of people like Donald Trump.

Why does it have to be like this?


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