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.