New State Legislation Will Likely Speed Up Construction Pace, Increase Size of Housing Developments in Pasadena

SB 330 would restrict City’s ability to regulate housing developments; Assemblymember Chris Holden says bill ‘treats issue for what it is—a crisis’

Published : Thursday, September 12, 2019 | 5:20 AM

A new State bill passed by the legislature and expected to earn Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature imminently could have a profound impact on new Pasadena development projects which contain housing.

SB 330 would impose State regulations  on the way Pasadena approves new housing developments.

Although the bill’s language is now being closely studied by city governments, preservationists and housing advocates and many are unsure of its full ramifications, many agree SB 330 will likely lead to faster construction of bigger residential and mixed-use developments in California cities.

If Newsom signs the bill, the changes begin in just over ninety days, on January 1, 2020.

SB 330 is the first of several housing-related bills California could see become law over the next year, which in combination could essentially remove cities’ abilities to limit developments within their city limits.

No longer would neighborhood groups be able to stop incoming developments which meet State regulations by protesting their impact on “neighborhood character,” for example.

Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek has already called the new wave of legislation “the end of single family neighborhoods” in Pasadena.

Indeed, much of the new legislation, though detailed, leaves more questions than it answers.

“We have to see how they all fit together before we understand what course of action Pasadena should follow,” Tornek said Wednesday.

Tornek noted the City’s, as well as the State’s,  “tremendous concern over the lack of housing, particularly affordable housing.”

 “The state is in a kind of a tough place,” he said.

As he explained further, “We have a homeless crisis in terms of the number of people that are living on the street. I mean people are flailing around trying to find some response to all that, some fix. Unfortunately, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.”

From Tornek’s point of view, the State has taken a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

But State Assemblymember Chris Holden,  a Pasadena resident and former City Councilmember, defended the bill, saying the State is, in fact, in crisis.

“The State Legislature is tasked with solving the most pressing problems we face like our housing crisis,” Holden said. “SB 330 is smart legislation that treats the issue for what it is—a crisis.”

According to the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office, only 61,200 residential building permits have been issued in California through July of this year, and officials said the state is on pace to permit less than 100,000 units in 2019. Governor Newsom had set a goal of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

SB 330 would supercede local zoning laws and prohibit an affected city or county from changing their general plan or specific land use designation or zoning to a less intensive use.

Changing regulations regarding height, density, or floor area ratio, new or increased open space or lot size requirements, or new or increased setback requirements, minimum frontage requirements, or maximum lot coverage limitations, for example, would be prohibited.

Any such amendment  in effect after January 1, 2018 in any California city would be ruled null and void by the State.

According to an analysis by The Embarcadero Report, the bill  “further preempts local zoning, if in conflict with a General Plan or the land-use element of a Specific Plan, allowing proposed housing developments to override local zoning.”

The analysis continued, “This could expose cities to housing development proposals that do not comply with adopted zoning standards such as density, size and design criteria. This could create confusion and expose cities to legal challenges over which standards apply, bogging down the review process and achieving the opposite of what the bill intends.”

SB 330 will  also require cities and counties to reduce the time it takes to process construction permits to no more than 90 days for most market-rate housing developments,  and a lightning-quick 60 days for affordable housing developments, once a project application is deemed complete.

Most new building developments in Pasadena have generally required at least a year or two, if not longer, to complete the approval process. The bill would also prohibit cities from conducting more than five public hearings on any new development, unheard of in most major cities.

In addition, SB 330 would establish uniform statewide standards for what a community can require in a project’s “preliminary application,” and require all communities to use a standard application form developed by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The new state standards will supercede many zoning regulations now put in place by local communities.

Not only will the new law require cities to approve and process new housing developments at unprecedented speed, the act also requires courts to impose a fine on cities who fail to comply swiftly enough.

Currently the fine is set to at least $10,000 per each housing unit in any housing development project, calculated from the date the application was deemed complete.

Despite an increase in housing developments, Pasadena is currently lagging behind state-mandated housing requirements, according to the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). The RHNA is mandated by State Housing Law as part of the periodic process of updating local housing elements of the State’s General Plan.

The trifecta of a dramatically sped-up permit process, fewer hearings, and fines for non-compliance, troubles Councilmember Andy Wilson.

“The problem is that the residents think that we have authority where we have less and less,” Wilson told Pasadena Now Tuesday. “They’re already upset about this and this is only going to compound that problem. And I think, as a local representative, it’s incredibly frustrating for us who want to do good work for our constituents who have been empowered to do so.”

Wilson added that he has “challenged” Councilmembers and the City Attorney to consider what type of recourse the City may have.

“I think most of us accept the fact that when laws are written, we need to abide by those laws,” he said. “But I think these have a significant and profound implications as to what our city could look like. And I know my constituents and myself personally are concerned about where this could take us (over the) next 10 to 15 years.”

Margaret McAustin, who is also deeply concerned with the law’s impact, agreed with Mayor Tornek, writing in an email response Tuesday,  “Once again the State has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to solve a problem for around 480 unique cities in California. Pasadena works every day to provide more affordable housing for our residents, and has distinguished itself as an implementer of housing solutions.”

McAustin pointed out that Pasadena has been making inroads in providing more housing, unlike other California cities, which have not.

“Pasadena is not every city,” said McAustin, “and we will continue to insist that any new housing fit within the bounds of our General Plan and Design guidelines. There are many cities that have no interest in providing affordable housing, and those cities should be the focus of this legislation.”

But for attorney Richard McDonald, who represents a number of developers and projects in Pasadena,  the new law is a way of cutting through the City’s red tape.

As McDonald said Tuesday, “I think the city will still have the various design standards and permit requirements that exist throughout the zoning code for different varieties of uses. This is more tailored legislation aimed specifically at a multifamily urban housing, to expedite it.”

McDonald added, “I think this is really designed to cut through that gauntlet and start to do what we need to be doing, which is really providing much more housing for the next generation. We have a moral obligation to the next generation to turn things over to them better than we received them. And unfortunately the short term politics of so many local governments has not been doing that.”

But the LA Conservancy has a far different reaction to the proposed law.

Writing on their website, the preservation group states, “Other than proximity to transit, these bills offer little consideration for where new housing and density should be built. If enacted, this legislation will significantly impact Los Angeles’s finite number of existing historic resources. This means older and historic neighborhoods could be harmed through demolition and infill construction that is out-of-character and scale to the surrounding neighborhood, effectively eroding the historic character of an entire neighborhood.”

Andrew Salimian, preservation director at Pasadena Heritage, said of the proposed law, “It’s concerning, but I think Pasadena has been following these kinds of guidelines for the past few years based on case law. So I don’t think it will change much here. I do worry that we’ll find something that we think of them is in compliant with the general plan or some neighborhood group will say is not compliant and then we’ll have to, you know, fight it out again through appeals. But I don’t think it is that different. The real worry to us is SB 50, which might come back next year. That will have a bigger impact.”

SB 50, which died in committee this year, will establish statewide zoning standards, ostensibly removing the last layers of local zoning control, say critics.

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