State Supremes Hold Rare S.B. Hearings

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.


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