April 17, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Zoning Nullification: The End of Local Control?

By Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Gov. Jerry Brown, a former mayor of Oakland who often griped about state government’s interference with local issues, ran in 2010 on a platform of stronger local control. He’s delivered on that for the most part, with the strong exception of pet projects like high speed rail and his putative water tunnels water project, both facing strong opposition from people and local governments in their direct paths.

But now cities and counties around the state face the strong possibility of a new law that would essentially nullify local land use and zoning plans crafted through years of public hearings and detailed analysis.

This comes in the guise of fighting homelessness and California’s severe housing shortage, which has contributed to driving up rents and real estate prices to the point where many California employers have trouble retaining workers because they can live elsewhere much more cheaply.

The proposed plan takes the form of a state Senate bill sponsored by San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener that would essentially take all zoning and land use authority away from cities and counties in areas close to mass transit.

Known as SB 827, this bill would prevent localities from regulating housing construction within half a mile of a light-rail train station or within one-quarter mile of a frequently used bus route. Those rules would cover about 95 percent of the area of some cities. They would also mandate housing density seldom seen outside the downtown areas of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, setting minimum heights of 45 feet to 85 feet in such areas and making eight-story high-rise buildings standard in many parts of California.

This plan already has the backing of many high-tech moguls, including the CEOs of companies like Salesforce, Twitter, Lyft, Yelp and Mozilla, all headquartered in or near San Francisco. A corps of 130 tech executives and their venture capital backers signed a letter this winter griping that “the lack of homebuilding in California imperils our ability to hire employees and grow our companies.”

But few of those executives live in areas likely to be impacted by the proposed rules. There are few rail stations or heavily-used bus lines in places like Hillsborough, Los Gatos and leafier areas of San Francisco like St. Francis Wood and Sherwood Forest.

The Wiener bill draws strong opposition from residents and governments in places as geographically diverse as Mill Valley and Santa Monica.

One Marin County blogger described the measure as “draconian,” because it would “remove local control of zoning and planning.”

It could do that, if passed in its present form. Passage seems possible since the bill will have backing from powerful forces including developers and building trade unions.

But the reasoning behind it is fundamentally flawed. For example, Wiener would make objections to projects on the grounds of vastly increased traffic irrelevant; presuming that proximity to mass transit prevents most new traffic problems and congestion.

But new figures from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Southern California demonstrate that’s not so. Despite introduction of billion-dollar new light rail lines over the past five years, ridership on buses and trains in the region was down 15 percent last year from levels of five years earlier. That represented a drop of 72 million trips. Yes, the new lines led to rail ridership increases – up 4 million, but that was far lower than the reduction in bus trips.

At the same time those lines were added, so were numerous apartment buildings near them. This has neither cut road traffic nor led to increased mass transit ridership, as planners often assume it will.

So the prevailing reasoning among planners seeking greater housing density is false. They’re wrong to believe Californians will easily abandon their cars.

This is also a major part of the reasoning behind Wiener’s proposal.

Because of its flawed logic, this measure would likely cause at least as many problems as it solves.

“California’s housing shortage is a threat to our economy,” Wiener told a reporter, insisting his plan can fix things. But even the mayor of ultra-liberal Berkeley objects, calling it an “extreme reactive approach” that would lead to more teardowns of existing housing and more evictions of longtime residents.

In short, this plan amounts to pure panic in the face of a problem. And panic rarely produces good results.

The bill would negate local building regulations near transit.
Related Posts

SM.a.r.t. Column: Santa Monica Needs Responsible Urban and Architectural Design

April 14, 2024

April 14, 2024

[SMa.r.t. note: Eight years ago, our highly esteemed and recently-passed colleague Ron Goldman documented his thoughts on the need for...

SM.a.r.t. Column: BLINK NOW!

April 7, 2024

April 7, 2024

Nine years ago, I wrote a column for SMa.r.t. titled SANTA MONICA: BEACH TOWN OR ‘DINGBAT’ CITY? (https://smdp.com/2015/05/09/santa-monica-beach-town-dingbat-city/)Here is the...

SM.a.r.t Column: ARB Courage (Part 2 of 2)

March 31, 2024

March 31, 2024

Last week we discussed the numerous flaws of the Gelson’s project as a perfect example of what not to do...

ARB Courage (Part 1 of 2)

March 24, 2024

March 24, 2024

On March 4, 2024, your ARB (Architectural Review Board) ruled in favor of the 521-unit Gelson’s Project at Ocean Park...

SM.a.r.t Column: Can California ARBs Balance Affordable Housing with Community Character in the Face of New Housing Laws?

March 17, 2024

March 17, 2024

By suggestion, I attended the March 4th ARB (Architectural Review Board) meeting that addressed the Gelson Lincoln Boulevard Project.  After...

S.M.a.r.t Column: On the Need for Safety

March 10, 2024

March 10, 2024

Earlier this week, in the dark pre-dawn hours, a pair of thugs covered in masks and hoodies burst into the...

Film Review: The Oscar Landscape 2024

March 7, 2024

March 7, 2024

FILM REVIEWTHE OSCAR LANDSCAPE 2024A Look at the Choices – Academy Awards – March 10, 2024, at 5:00 p.m. on...

S.M.a.r.t Column: Five Saving Historic Santa Monica

March 3, 2024

March 3, 2024

Our beloved City is surrounded by many threats, from sea level rise to homelessness, to housing affordability, to cancerous overdevelopment,...

S.M.a.r.t Column: Gelson’s Looms Large

February 22, 2024

February 22, 2024

Our guest column this week is by SMCLC (the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City). SMCLC is a well-established...

S.M.a.r.t Column: Top Toady Town

February 18, 2024

February 18, 2024

Throughout history, from the ancient Romans and Assyrians to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, siege warfare has served as an...

S.M.a.r.t Column: The Sunset of Home Ownership

February 11, 2024

February 11, 2024

We are watching the sunset of our historical and cultural American dream of home ownership as we now are crossing...

SMa.r.t. Column: B(U)Y RIGHT

February 4, 2024

February 4, 2024

“By Right” state housing laws that give developers, in certain projects, the ability to ignore codes ‘by right.’ Well, that...

S.M.a.r.t  Column: Serf City

January 28, 2024

January 28, 2024

Homelessness is a problem in California, and nowhere is this more evident than in our fair city, where the unhoused...

S.M.a.r.t  Column: Bond Fatigue

January 22, 2024

January 22, 2024

Last week’s SMart article,  described two critical problems faced by our Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD): the declining...

S.M.a.r.t Column: Peace on Earth

December 27, 2023

December 27, 2023

We are all, by now, saturated with jingles, holiday cards, “ho ho ho’s,” countless commercial advertisements, and exhortations to feel...