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Judge rules Los Altos violated state housing laws in blocking downtown project

A proposed five-story development in downtown Los Altos must proceed after a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge found the city violated Senate Bill 35 and other state housing laws in denying the project last year.

The April 24 ruling by Judge Helen Williams states that Los Altos must allow the 15-unit development to proceed at the requested density, and that the city acted in bad faith by blocking the project without merit and in a way that goes beyond making a "benign error."

The verdict is being hailed by housing advocates as a hard-fought victory that sets important precedent for the by-right housing law, which gives residential projects streamlined approval if they meet objective zoning standards. The ruling should signal to cities that they can no longer block housing projects they don't like by twisting and reinterpreting state and local laws, said Victoria Fierce of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA).

"Here, Los Altos lied and put up barriers to approval at every step, never expecting a court would hold them accountable," Fierce said. "This decision established exactly the accountability we should expect from cities."

When asked for comment, city officials said they were disappointed by the ruling but declined to discuss whether they planned to appeal.

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"Of course, the city is very disappointed with the judge's decision, but we will not comment further until after the city council has the opportunity to discuss the decision," said city spokeswoman Sonia Lee.

The project proposal at 40 Main St. has a storied and controversial history, put forward by property owners Ted and Jerry Sorensen in multiple iterations going back several years. The latest iteration sought to use streamlined approval under SB 35 to construct a 66-foot-tall mixed-use building with offices on the first floor and 15 units above it. Two of those units will be below-market-rate units.

The project would be taller than the rest of downtown Los Altos structures and the standard zoning heights for the area because it double-dips into both state and local density bonuses. At a hearing on the project in April last year, many city residents bristled at the idea of putting a dense building in the quaint downtown area, going so far as to call it an "atrocity."

In blocking the project, city staff argued that the proposal lacked "sufficient parking," and didn't have enough access to off-street parking, and claimed that the project didn't have enough affordable housing units to comply with SB 35.

"It is not apparent from this vague statement just what those purported standards are and where they can be located," according to the ruling. "Notwithstanding the opacity and ambiguity of the City's statement, it is apparent that it was not relying on permissible, objective standards for parking."

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As to whether the project can tap into density bonuses and still meet objective zoning standards, the court disagreed with the city.

"The city's interpretation of the Density Bonus Law is incorrect," the ruling states. "Courts have routinely rejected such an interpretation of the law. The 35% bonus authorized under the (California) Density Bonus Law and the city's own ordinance is the mandatory minimum a city must provide; it is not cap."

Where the city's actions amounted to bad faith is in the way city staff handled the project application, the appeal process and ultimate denial of the project. From the get-go, planning staff muddied the waters by appearing to treat the project as two distinct applications: One using SB 35's streamlined process and another standard, discretionary development application. The city attempted to discard the latter because it was incomplete.

In the months that followed, the court found that the city failed to follow the law by "timely explaining to the developer just how its project conflicted with objective standards." The city also presented a list of additional reasons why the project didn't comply after the deadline -- reasons that, the court found, were erroneous anyway.

"In addition to tactics such as demanding an administrative appeal on less than one day's notice and using strained constructions and textual interpretations to assert that developer had presented two applications that had to be withdrawn, the city denied the streamlining application with a facially deficient letter and later adopted a resolution enumerating insufficient reasons for the denial," according to the ruling.

CaRLA and attorneys representing the Sorensens independently filed lawsuits against the city after the project was denied, which were joined in a single civil suit that Williams ruled on last week. Dan Golub, who represents the Sorensens and argued the legal merits of the project to the city, called the ruling a victory for SB 35.

"It is gratifying the court agreed with our legal arguments, and we are proud to have achieved this important victory enforcing some of the state's cutting-edge housing laws," Golub said.

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Judge rules Los Altos violated state housing laws in blocking downtown project

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Thu, Apr 30, 2020, 12:57 pm

A proposed five-story development in downtown Los Altos must proceed after a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge found the city violated Senate Bill 35 and other state housing laws in denying the project last year.

The April 24 ruling by Judge Helen Williams states that Los Altos must allow the 15-unit development to proceed at the requested density, and that the city acted in bad faith by blocking the project without merit and in a way that goes beyond making a "benign error."

The verdict is being hailed by housing advocates as a hard-fought victory that sets important precedent for the by-right housing law, which gives residential projects streamlined approval if they meet objective zoning standards. The ruling should signal to cities that they can no longer block housing projects they don't like by twisting and reinterpreting state and local laws, said Victoria Fierce of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA).

"Here, Los Altos lied and put up barriers to approval at every step, never expecting a court would hold them accountable," Fierce said. "This decision established exactly the accountability we should expect from cities."

When asked for comment, city officials said they were disappointed by the ruling but declined to discuss whether they planned to appeal.

"Of course, the city is very disappointed with the judge's decision, but we will not comment further until after the city council has the opportunity to discuss the decision," said city spokeswoman Sonia Lee.

The project proposal at 40 Main St. has a storied and controversial history, put forward by property owners Ted and Jerry Sorensen in multiple iterations going back several years. The latest iteration sought to use streamlined approval under SB 35 to construct a 66-foot-tall mixed-use building with offices on the first floor and 15 units above it. Two of those units will be below-market-rate units.

The project would be taller than the rest of downtown Los Altos structures and the standard zoning heights for the area because it double-dips into both state and local density bonuses. At a hearing on the project in April last year, many city residents bristled at the idea of putting a dense building in the quaint downtown area, going so far as to call it an "atrocity."

In blocking the project, city staff argued that the proposal lacked "sufficient parking," and didn't have enough access to off-street parking, and claimed that the project didn't have enough affordable housing units to comply with SB 35.

"It is not apparent from this vague statement just what those purported standards are and where they can be located," according to the ruling. "Notwithstanding the opacity and ambiguity of the City's statement, it is apparent that it was not relying on permissible, objective standards for parking."

As to whether the project can tap into density bonuses and still meet objective zoning standards, the court disagreed with the city.

"The city's interpretation of the Density Bonus Law is incorrect," the ruling states. "Courts have routinely rejected such an interpretation of the law. The 35% bonus authorized under the (California) Density Bonus Law and the city's own ordinance is the mandatory minimum a city must provide; it is not cap."

Where the city's actions amounted to bad faith is in the way city staff handled the project application, the appeal process and ultimate denial of the project. From the get-go, planning staff muddied the waters by appearing to treat the project as two distinct applications: One using SB 35's streamlined process and another standard, discretionary development application. The city attempted to discard the latter because it was incomplete.

In the months that followed, the court found that the city failed to follow the law by "timely explaining to the developer just how its project conflicted with objective standards." The city also presented a list of additional reasons why the project didn't comply after the deadline -- reasons that, the court found, were erroneous anyway.

"In addition to tactics such as demanding an administrative appeal on less than one day's notice and using strained constructions and textual interpretations to assert that developer had presented two applications that had to be withdrawn, the city denied the streamlining application with a facially deficient letter and later adopted a resolution enumerating insufficient reasons for the denial," according to the ruling.

CaRLA and attorneys representing the Sorensens independently filed lawsuits against the city after the project was denied, which were joined in a single civil suit that Williams ruled on last week. Dan Golub, who represents the Sorensens and argued the legal merits of the project to the city, called the ruling a victory for SB 35.

"It is gratifying the court agreed with our legal arguments, and we are proud to have achieved this important victory enforcing some of the state's cutting-edge housing laws," Golub said.

Comments

Local business guy
Old Mountain View
on Apr 30, 2020 at 2:14 pm
Local business guy, Old Mountain View
on Apr 30, 2020 at 2:14 pm
17 people like this

[Post removed due to trolling]


The Business Man
Castro City
on Apr 30, 2020 at 3:43 pm
The Business Man, Castro City
on Apr 30, 2020 at 3:43 pm
2 people like this

This should be a wake up call to the City Council of Mountain View.

They better stop trying to avoid complying with the new housing laws like SB 330 or they will wind up in the same place.

This was a very foreseeable judgment.


psr
The Crossings
on Apr 30, 2020 at 5:02 pm
psr, The Crossings
on Apr 30, 2020 at 5:02 pm
15 people like this

So people in a town are no longer entitled to determine the type of community they want to live in. Good to know.

A government organization and a judge, neither of which reside in the community, get to decide what that community must look like. They get to force the residents to tolerate an ugly high-rise building, despite the fact that the residents don't WANT the ugly high-rise building.

Keep that in mind the next time you vote for these people. They know how to run your town better than you do. They must be brilliant.


High Rise
The Crossings
on Apr 30, 2020 at 5:19 pm
High Rise, The Crossings
on Apr 30, 2020 at 5:19 pm
25 people like this

On what planet is a five-story building a "high-rise"? People might take you more seriously and be sympathetic to your cause if you didn't act like Chicken Little.


It’s complicated
Old Mountain View
on May 1, 2020 at 9:58 am
It’s complicated, Old Mountain View
on May 1, 2020 at 9:58 am
6 people like this

Funny to watch the ebb and flow of sentiments between local, decentralized and federal, centralized governance. Public policy is complicated, cities are not sovereigns, there are overlapping authorities in re: such matters


The Business Man
Castro City
on May 1, 2020 at 1:24 pm
The Business Man, Castro City
on May 1, 2020 at 1:24 pm
4 people like this

In response to psr you wrote:

“So people in a town are no longer entitled to determine the type of community they want to live in. Good to know.”

That philosophy inevitably results in housing discrimination via disparate impact, there are almost hundreds of cases to report in the judicial record to prove it. What you are trying to do is use a cloaking device on housing discrimination. Under the idea of the power of community determination of who is preferred to be a member of the community. WOW You said:

“A government organization and a judge, neither of which reside in the community, get to decide what that community must look like. They get to force the residents to tolerate an ugly high-rise building, despite the fact that the residents don't WANT the ugly high-rise building.”

You are first making a assertion that hasn’t even happened yet. You are trying to use FEAR to mask the people’s attention to distract from the real problem which is a lack of housing. That lack of housing has been used to artificially inflate housing values in the state of California as far back as 1970. Show us any high rise in the city of Mountain View that is the results of your claim? You said:

“Keep that in mind the next time you vote for these people. They know how to run your town better than you do. They must be brilliant.”

I cannot argue with this, but the current City Council has NO expertise in urban development, or civil engineering. You are correct that we do not vote the right people into offices, where they do not have the qualifications to perform this task.


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