High Court Deliberates Over Goleta Housing Project
by Nick Welsh
The California State Supreme Court made a rare ceremonial and working visit to the Santa Barbara Courthouse this week, operating out of the picture-perfect Mural Room. Justices started the day taking questions from county high school students — most from Santa Ynez and Santa Maria — before they got down to the serious business of dissecting legal arguments. In the first case — involving the admissibility as evidence of a handgun found in the car of a 16-year-old detained during an illegal traffic stop — all seven justices peppered attorneys representing both sides with so many questions that one justice’s query frequently interrupted the reply to another justice’s.
The second case involved a high-stakes housing dispute in Goleta in which the developer accused the Goleta City Council of violating its own ordinances relating to mapping subdivisions when it denied his proposed 109-unit Sandpiper housing project. The Goleta City Council has countered that the developer rushed his development through the county’s approval process just as the City of Goleta was first forming in 2001 — over the strenuous and repeated objections of city officials. The legal issues involved were highly technical and only three of the justices weighed in with sustained lines of focused questioning and argument. The developer first prevailed in Santa Barbara Superior Court, but the City of Goleta prevailed at the Court of Appeal. It’s now up to the State Supreme Court to determine the extent to which a newly formed city is required to respect the land-use decisions made by the reigning authority just before that city came into being.
The developer’s attorney, Richard Monk, argued that the City of Goleta led his client on for 11 months — at a cost of $1.9 million — by processing his application, but never taking the legal steps necessary to make it clear it would not approve his final subdivision map. Worse yet, Monk said, the brand new Goleta City Council temporarily adopted the county’s subdivision map not once, but three times. That ordinance, he claimed, severely limits the discretion of the elected body to reject final subdivision maps after having first approved the tentative maps.
These arguments clearly resonated with Justice Joyce Kennard, who kept coming back to the ordinances passed by the new city council. But attorney Brian Pierek, representing the City of Goleta, found a strong ally in Chief Justice Ronald George. Pierek denied that the City of Goleta had led the developer on by processing his application; by law, the city had to, he argued. He also pointed out that councilmembers of the new city had repeatedly objected to the development and had urged the supervisors not to approve it. (The city itself was formed in part to defend itself against the development approved by county supervisors in the Goleta Valley.) Pierek argued that Monk and his client had rushed their development through the county’s development review process with strategic urgency specifically to avoid the slow-growth scrutiny it would receive from the Goleta council. “This was a project they were going to rush through the county so the City of Goleta would not have discretion,” Pierek argued.
Chief Justice George repeatedly echoed these concerns, asking Monk how his client could possibly have been surprised. “It’s apparent to me,” he said, ‘‘that there was a public expression of doubt and concern about the project both before and after incorporation came about.” The Supreme Court has up to 90 days to issue a decision.