San Bruno pressured by state to approve housing project

An aerial view of San Bruno. (Wikimedia Commons)

The May decision of state Senate Appropriations Chairman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, to kill a sweeping bill making it far easier for developers to build four- or five-story condominium and rental projects near mass transit led many disappointed pundits to complain that the Legislature still hadn’t done enough to spur housing construction. Senate Bill 50, by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, was seen as crucial to getting local communities to meet housing needs.

But officials and residents of the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno don’t want to hear that the state hasn’t done enough to pressure local governments. Thanks to a 2017 housing law – also crafted by Wiener – and another bill recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the city of 43,000 residents could eventually face fines of as much as $600,000 a month for failing to meet housing mandates, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

At issue is the San Bruno City Council’s July 10 decision to reject a 425-unit housing project proposed by the Signature Development Group. Zachary Olmstead, a deputy director at the state Department of Housing and Community Development, warned city officials in a letter last week that under the 2017 law, they were legally compelled to approve the project since it met all planning and zoning requirements without imperiling public safety or health. Olmstead noted that state law compels San Bruno to approve construction of 1,155 new housing units by 2023, but so far it had approved just 118 units – with none for low-income families.

Gov. Newsom sees lawsuits as way to fight local NIMBYs

The formal notice from the state clears the way for the Newsom administration to eventually sue San Bruno if it doesn’t reverse its decision on the project or otherwise approve new housing. The governor already made it clear he considers such lawsuits as a powerful tool to force housing construction, suing Huntington Beach in January because the Orange County city had made little progress toward the requirement that it add 533 low-income housing units by the end of 2021.

Huntington Beach officials, who believe that their state constitutional protections as a charter city are being violated, are suing the state over its housing edict.

San Bruno officials have reacted with much less defiance. That may be partly because as a general law city, San Bruno can’t claim constitutional cover. It’s also because there is far more support for the 425-unit project in San Bruno than there is for low-income housing in Huntington Beach.

According to the Chronicle, the Signature Development Group worked to firm up support for its project by accepting city officials’ request that its plan add 64 more low-income units and include a grocery store, among other concessions. But while four of the five council members backed the project, two of those members recused themselves because of perceived conflicts of interests, since they live within 1,000 feet of the proposed project site. That meant there weren’t the necessary three votes for approval.

Unlike Huntington Beach, San Bruno is conciliatory

Even before the state’s warning arrived, San Bruno City Manager Jovan Grogan posted a statement on the city’s website about the controversy late last month that acknowledged the City Council’s decision might not stand. 

Grogan’s conciliatory remarks presented a sharp contrast with Huntington Beach officials’ reaction to the state’s pressure. There, City Attorney Michael Gates blasted Newsom and suggested that Huntington Beach’s history as a Republican stronghold was why it was singled out first instead of the 50-plus other cities in California that also failed to meet state housing mandates.

Meanwhile, there were reports this week that the San Bruno City Council would meet soon to review its limited options. An opinion from the city’s legal advisers saying the two council members who recused themselves from conflicts could vote because of the unusual circumstances could be a tidy way out of the problem.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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