By Tom Elias
All over California last fall, hundreds of the civic minded spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars running for posts on city councils and county boards.
Some of them may now be wondering why they bothered. For over the last three years, state government has gradually usurped almost full jurisdiction over one of the key powers always previously held by locally elected officials: The ability to decide what their city or county will look like and feel like over the next few decades.
That’s done via land use decisions which control how many housing units and commercial sites can be built up in a given time.
Via a series of laws mandating new levels of density everywhere in the state, whether or not they are needed and justified, this key local power now belongs to largely anonymous state officials who know little or nothing about most places whose future they are deciding.
It’s being done through the elimination of single-family, or R-1, zoning. It’s being done via the new requirement that the state Department of Housing and Community Development approve housing elements for every locality. If HCD does not approve such a plan for a city, developers can target it with virtually no limits, if they choose.
It’s all based on a supposed need for at least 1.8 million new housing units touted by HCD. This, despite the fact that the state auditor last spring found that HCD did not properly vet the documents and other instruments on which that estimate was based.
What’s more, only three years earlier, HCD was claiming more than 3.5 million new units were needed. Less than one-eighth that many have risen, yet HCD has cut its need estimate considerably.
And yet… cities and counties must do what they’re told by this demonstrably incompetent agency, or risk lawsuits and big losses in state grants for everything from sewers and road maintenance to police and fire departments. State Attorney General Rob Bonta even set up a new unit in his Justice Department to threaten and pursue noncompliant cities.
This leads localities to approve developments in ways they never did before, including some administrative approvals without so much as the possibility of a public hearing.
It leads to the absurd, as with Atherton trying to get state approval of a plan forcing almost all local homeowners to create “additional dwelling units” on the one-acre lots long required in the city. That’s instead of building almost 400 townhouses or apartments in a town of barely 7,000 persons.
And in Santa Monica, because the city council did not get its housing element approved, developers can probably not be stopped as they make plans for at least 12 large new buildings. So much for bucolic seaside living.
Santa Monica is also an example of a city buckling to state pressure to allow huge projects opposed by most of its citizens, a majority of whom are renters. That city has done nothing to stop or alter the largest development in its history, to be built on a property at a major intersection now occupied by a grocery and several other stores.
Despite heavy community interest, evidenced by the more than 2,000 persons on a Zoom call about the project last winter, the city will hold no public hearings and does not respond to most written communications from its citizens about the development. All because it fears the state will sue if it objects.
Several cities have begun to fight parts of today’s state domination of land use. Four Los Angeles County cities – Redondo Beach, Torrance, Carson and Whittier – are seeking a court order negating the 2021 Senate Bill 9, which allows single family homes to be replaced by as many as six units, with cities unable to nix any such project.
As city councils and county boards see their constituents objecting loudly to much of this scene, it’s inevitable that other lawsuits will follow. No one can predict whether or not courts will find the state Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom have vastly overreached in their power grab, which is all for the sake of increased density and based on unfounded predictions by bureaucrats who answer to no one.