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Los Altos appeals court decision ruling the city must allow a downtown housing project to proceed

Los Altos is appealing a court decision to stop a five-story mixed-use housing development, in what could be a landmark case for recent state housing legislation. Courtesy city of Los Altos

The city of Los Altos is fighting a trial court judgement earlier this year that ruled the city must allow a 15-unit housing project in its downtown area to proceed.

The Los Altos City Council voted unanimously to appeal the decision by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams, who ruled in April that the city had unfairly blocked a housing development that met the criteria for "by-right" housing under a new state law, SB 35. The ruling went on to say that the city acted in bad faith in its maneuvers to block the project from proceeding, and that it must allow the five-story project to move forward.

In a statement Wednesday, city officials said that Los Altos recognizes the need for more housing, but asserted that the project doesn't comply with its downtown standards — referring to the project as "oversized" and describing the parking lot and use of an elevator lift as a "significant public safety concern."

"The City Council recognizes the inherent risks of continued litigation. However, challenging this decision is the only prudent option to preserve and enforce the City's zoning ordinances on behalf of our residents," according to the statement.

The appeal came as a surprise to Dylan Casey, executive director of California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, a plaintiff in the case. He described the judge's ruling as a cut-and-dry argument that the city did not abide by state laws — particularly SB 35 and the Housing Accountability Act — in rejecting the project.

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"I'm surprised because I thought the trial court ruling was very clear, and the requirements of state law are really clear here," Casey said. "We're mainly just trying to get the city to follow its own development standards."

The project proposal at 40 Main St. has a long and storied history in Los Altos, but the latest incarnation sought to capitalize on streamlined approval through SB 35 by adding enough housing to circumvent discretionary approval by the City Council. The mixed-use building has 15 apartments, two of which will be affordable units, as well as first-floor offices.

City staff, and later the City Council, have taken a skeptical approach to the project from the outset, questioning whether it really met the bar for streamlined approval under the state's housing laws. For example, the building takes advantage of additional height and density bonuses baked into the city's municipal code, as well as in state law, perceived as a way to double-dip and create a project far taller than envisioned for the city's quaint downtown corridor.

The court found that the city did not explain to the developer in a timely manner how the project conflicted with objective zoning standards, and only provided a list of purported problems with the proposal after the state-mandated deadline. Along with other errors and missteps, Judge Williams wrote that Los Altos was not making benign errors, but was in fact acting in bad faith in attempting to block a project without merit.

SB 35 is among a suite of recent state housing laws that advocates say are crucial to spur more residential growth in cities that have fallen behind on their state housing goals. The bill was particularly targeted at municipalities perceived to be overusing their discretionary powers to block housing projects that met all of the objective zoning criteria to move forward.

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The case brought against the city over 40 Main St. was among the first lawsuits in the state that cited a violation of SB 35, and could very well serve as a precedent for housing lawsuits going forward. Casey said the legal battle was ostensibly to get the 15 apartments through the pipeline in a city with limited housing growth, but that his organization always had the bigger picture in mind as well.

"Our goal here was to get housing approved that complies with all the city standards and to establish a model for how the state law can be used in other cities around the state," Casey said.

Members of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) hailed the April ruling as a major victory for SB 35 and housing advocates in California, writing in a blog post that the ruling makes clear that cities "cannot bluff their way around state law by making up reasons for denying housing with no basis in their own laws." Casey said the group plans to fight the appeal as a plaintiff in the case.

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Los Altos appeals court decision ruling the city must allow a downtown housing project to proceed

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Wed, Jul 8, 2020, 1:36 pm

The city of Los Altos is fighting a trial court judgement earlier this year that ruled the city must allow a 15-unit housing project in its downtown area to proceed.

The Los Altos City Council voted unanimously to appeal the decision by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams, who ruled in April that the city had unfairly blocked a housing development that met the criteria for "by-right" housing under a new state law, SB 35. The ruling went on to say that the city acted in bad faith in its maneuvers to block the project from proceeding, and that it must allow the five-story project to move forward.

In a statement Wednesday, city officials said that Los Altos recognizes the need for more housing, but asserted that the project doesn't comply with its downtown standards — referring to the project as "oversized" and describing the parking lot and use of an elevator lift as a "significant public safety concern."

"The City Council recognizes the inherent risks of continued litigation. However, challenging this decision is the only prudent option to preserve and enforce the City's zoning ordinances on behalf of our residents," according to the statement.

The appeal came as a surprise to Dylan Casey, executive director of California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, a plaintiff in the case. He described the judge's ruling as a cut-and-dry argument that the city did not abide by state laws — particularly SB 35 and the Housing Accountability Act — in rejecting the project.

"I'm surprised because I thought the trial court ruling was very clear, and the requirements of state law are really clear here," Casey said. "We're mainly just trying to get the city to follow its own development standards."

The project proposal at 40 Main St. has a long and storied history in Los Altos, but the latest incarnation sought to capitalize on streamlined approval through SB 35 by adding enough housing to circumvent discretionary approval by the City Council. The mixed-use building has 15 apartments, two of which will be affordable units, as well as first-floor offices.

City staff, and later the City Council, have taken a skeptical approach to the project from the outset, questioning whether it really met the bar for streamlined approval under the state's housing laws. For example, the building takes advantage of additional height and density bonuses baked into the city's municipal code, as well as in state law, perceived as a way to double-dip and create a project far taller than envisioned for the city's quaint downtown corridor.

The court found that the city did not explain to the developer in a timely manner how the project conflicted with objective zoning standards, and only provided a list of purported problems with the proposal after the state-mandated deadline. Along with other errors and missteps, Judge Williams wrote that Los Altos was not making benign errors, but was in fact acting in bad faith in attempting to block a project without merit.

SB 35 is among a suite of recent state housing laws that advocates say are crucial to spur more residential growth in cities that have fallen behind on their state housing goals. The bill was particularly targeted at municipalities perceived to be overusing their discretionary powers to block housing projects that met all of the objective zoning criteria to move forward.

The case brought against the city over 40 Main St. was among the first lawsuits in the state that cited a violation of SB 35, and could very well serve as a precedent for housing lawsuits going forward. Casey said the legal battle was ostensibly to get the 15 apartments through the pipeline in a city with limited housing growth, but that his organization always had the bigger picture in mind as well.

"Our goal here was to get housing approved that complies with all the city standards and to establish a model for how the state law can be used in other cities around the state," Casey said.

Members of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) hailed the April ruling as a major victory for SB 35 and housing advocates in California, writing in a blog post that the ruling makes clear that cities "cannot bluff their way around state law by making up reasons for denying housing with no basis in their own laws." Casey said the group plans to fight the appeal as a plaintiff in the case.

Comments

Member
Monta Loma
on Jul 8, 2020 at 11:30 pm
Member, Monta Loma
on Jul 8, 2020 at 11:30 pm
3 people like this

SB35 Coming to ruin your city soon! Although Mt View ‘leadership’ already doing everything they can to do that already. Although since Covid now all companies will simply have there workforce WFH forever and no one will have to live here anymore. Get ready for major real estate crashes, abandoned projects and pretty much local economic apocalypse setting in. COVID may not be the deadliest of bugs but we are hellbent or destroying ourselves over it.


The Business Man
Old Mountain View
on Jul 9, 2020 at 12:16 am
The Business Man, Old Mountain View
on Jul 9, 2020 at 12:16 am
2 people like this

This situation was decades in the making:

First, AB5 is correcting for the illegal use of contractors in the Tech industry. More than 50% or workers in the industry are not employees even though the legally were required to be employees. 1996 Microsoft gout caught in the Federal Courts, and Dynamex did in 2018. Thus these companies are going to relocate to avoid this problem for a short time. The real problem is that the IRS standards are federal and the courts made that decision based on the IRS standards.

Second, The failure of the private housing sector to build enough housing to keep housing prices high, even after the 2008 "correction" which actually didn't happen, the area continued to inflate the bubble. This has added to the forces that result in people moving away. THe recent story about NYC and the rental industry is a sure warning. The Bloomberg article titled "NYC Rental Market Pushed to Breaking Point by Tenant Debts" found here (ttps://www.bloombergquint.com/businessweek/coronavirus-moves-nyc-affordable-housing-crisis-to-breaking-point). This is a good predictor since so many people up and left San Francisco, and it is occurring in Santa Clara County too.

Third the fact that local governments NEVER addressed the issue enough requiring the state to create land use mandates. Including the ability to override local plans if affordable housing is not being met under the RHNA inventory. So this is another serious issue.

You now say "gosh I'm shocked" The COVID is just icing on the cake.

So many people cheated to get over inflated prices on housing, and so many employers cheated to make their workers think they were making a good living. This situation is finally disclosing the cheating and no one want to play that game again.


NIMBY / YIMBY
North Whisman
on Jul 16, 2020 at 10:43 am
NIMBY / YIMBY, North Whisman
on Jul 16, 2020 at 10:43 am
Like this comment

And the Los Altos political establishment continues to both advocate and spend public money (attorney fees) to fight the federal system. The state of California has control over zoning and land use, not a city like Los Altos. If the opposite were true, would Los Altos City Council still be requiring restrictive deed covenants - prohibiting residential deed transfers to members of the "Negro race"?


Gary
Sylvan Park
on Jul 16, 2020 at 12:16 pm
Gary, Sylvan Park
on Jul 16, 2020 at 12:16 pm
2 people like this

Regarding last anonymous poster. The ruling on appeal has nothing to do with "the federal system." It is based on a state law. State courts have ruled that the state government may write and re-write land use laws - whatever city or county governments might want. Cities should consider a statewide initiative (proposed ballot measure) to secure some local control - but I have been saying so for years. As to higher-density housing, it is not necessary to authorize it everywhere. There is space not in single-family neighborhoods. But giant high-tech employers and developers would rather just rebuild and add high-density in single-family neighborhoods. City Council candidates should be asked what state housing laws they favor and oppose and what housing laws and strategies they propose to save or improve this city.


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