The city of Mountain View is drafting rules for how additional homes can be built on single-family properties under Senate Bill 9, taking a measured approach to one of the state's most controversial housing laws in recent years.
SB 9 requires cities to approve developing secondary homes on single-family lots if the projects meet certain standards, with similar streamlined approval for property owners seeking to split a single-family lot into two parcels. As many as four homes could be built on an existing single-family property under the law.
Though some cities have vowed to fight SB 9 and sought unusual exemptions to skirt the housing obligation, Mountain View's proposed rules regulating SB 9 housing development are more balanced. Though the city cannot contradict state law with its own zoning rules, it can create "local objective standards" that put curbs on what can be built under the auspices of SB 9.
Front yards won't be going away, but may shrink under SB 9. The proposed city ordinance for two-unit lots will require at least 25% of the front setback to be landscaped, compared to 50% required under existing rules. While the city must allow buildings to creep up against adjacent properties within as little as 4 feet, city officials are recommending that no second-story decks be permitted on newly constructed units as a privacy measure.
For carving single-family lots in half, the proposed ordinances will require a minimum width of 30 feet in order to prevent "irregularly shaped" lots, and require any newly created lot to have at least 16 feet facing a public street.
While Mountain View could go above and beyond state law and allow even more than four units on an existing single-family property, the proposed ordinances would only allow the state minimum -- consistent with nearby cities including Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Saratoga and San Jose.
Earlier this month, the city's Environmental Planning Commission agreed on Feb. 16 to the proposed zoning changes, albeit with some reservations. Commission member Chris Clark said the blanket prohibition on second-story decks may not be the best approach, and that it's important for there to be outdoor space as more units are packed onto existing properties.
"I completely understand the desire to ensure some level of privacy with reduced setbacks with respect to balconies, (but) I do think the way that we're approaching it is a little restrictive," Clark said.
Even prior to SB 9, homeowners could opt to build a two- or three-story home under the current code and present a privacy risk to neighbors without having to go through an arduous review process, Clark said.
Resident Albert Jeans raised several concerns about SB 9 and the potential for a loss of privacy, though he conceded that there's not much the city can do about it. Under the state law, the city can only impose a maximum buffer of 4 feet between buildings and the back and sides of the property.
"If you have one of these in the back of your yard and one off to the side, you have no privacy at all now. Your whole lot, your whole backyard, is now exposed to your neighbors. I think this one of the major concerns we all have about this law," Jeans said.
Others urged the city to take a different approach and consider easing restrictions on newly built homes. Kelsey Banes, speaking as a renter in Mountain View, said it's not clear why Mountain View should mandate front yards, ban balconies and prohibit irregularly shaped lots, and that the city should be exploring ways to spur development rather than hinder it.
"It does seem like the thrust of the proposed amendments are really aimed at restricting," Banes said. "I would like to see more amendments that are aimed at promoting this development and making it more feasible for people."
City officials say they do not expect an explosion of development following the passage of SB 9, and that the city already had a framework for accessory dwelling units that created similar potential for new development in single-family neighborhoods. Still, commission members wondered whether there were ways to reduce barriers to new construction.
Among those ideas was whether to waive affordable housing fees, or below-market-rate in lieu fees, required on new development under SB 9. Commission members agreed to flag it as an idea for the City Council to consider in March, but stopped short of advocating for the idea.
Commission member Hank Dempsey said he was reluctant to start cutting costs when the city can only speculate how much demand there will be for SB 9 homes.
"I would be worried about underfunding the BMR program," Dempsey said. "I don't think we know enough about who is going to try to do these SB 9 conversions to judge whether or not we should be cutting fees."
SB 9 remains a hot topic in California and has galvanized some residents to take action at the state level. A group called Our Neighborhood Voices has proposed a ballot measure that would roll back the power of the state to impose new land use rules like SB 9 on local land use decisions. The group sought to put the measure on the ballot this year, but has since announced it will wait until 2024.
Though the proposed ballot measure is a direct response to SB 9, the text itself is broad and seeks to give city and county land use laws the power to supersede state laws in the event of a conflict -- a major reversal of land use policies in California.
The city's proposed ordinances are consistent with SB 9, and are scheduled to come before the City Council for approval on March 22. Information can be found on the city's SB 9 webpage.