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Regional Control in Crosshairs in State Housing Crisis

Key Reform Would Require 'Objective Design Review' Standards

Planning Commissioner Sheila Lodge
Paul Wellman

After working the levers at City Hall for more than 32 years, Sheila Lodge doesn’t appear to have lost her edge. “‘Objective design standards’?” she asked, her voice straining with theatrical incredulity. “That sounds like an oxymoron to me.”

Lodge started off her political career on the city’s Planning Commission in the 1970s; then she was elected to council; then she served 12 years as mayor. Now she’s a planning commissioner again. Through it all, Lodge has remained an unrepentant, old-school slow-growther, outspokenly bird-dogging big development to maintain Santa Barbara’s small-town quality of life. To that end, Lodge has routinely availed herself of such vaguely defined design criteria as “neighborhood compatibility” to bludgeon projects she’s deemed too big for their britches into a more neighborly size. That’s been the Santa Barbara way ​— ​not coincidentally ​— ​for about 50 years.

Now, no more.

For the past three years, the State Legislature has passed bill after bill to take discretionary approval authority away from local governments when it comes to housing projects. With the state facing an estimated housing shortfall of two million units, the Legislature concluded that what was once merely a “critical” problem has escalated into a full blown “crisis.” As a result, economic opportunities have been stifled, according to the preamble of one such bill, “worsening poverty and homelessness and undermining the state’s environmental and climate objectives.” In that context, local control has become a luxury Sacramento has decided the state can ill afford.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development recently sued the City of Huntington Beach for adopting a zoning change that effectively reduces the number of housing units that can be built. Huntington Beach, it should be noted, has sued back. This Monday, new governor Gavin Newsom put representatives of California cities ​— ​with whom he was then meeting ​— ​on notice that he would be ratcheting up the pressure on them to do more about housing.

This past Thursday, members of the city’s Planning Commission got an up-close and personal tutorial on three of the 15 bills signed into law over the past two years by former governor Jerry Brown to limit the power of local governments to reject or reduce the size of multi-unit housing proposals. In addition, the Legislature is accelerating the speed with which design review boards must process such applications. Key among the reforms is a proposal requiring “objective design review” standards. No longer will it be legally defensible for bodies like the Architectural Board of Review to scale back certain proposals on the grounds of “neighborhood incompatibility” or excessive “size, bulk, and scale” ​— ​for years boilerplate verbiage in local land-use battles. Instead, such judgments must be couched in objective and quantifiable descriptions. “If we don’t have objective standards, we don’t have anything,” stated assistant city attorney Tava Ostrenger.

Lodge, who has been waging a lonely battle against increased housing densities for the past 10 years ​— ​they fail to generate affordable housing, she says, and often look ugly ​— ​said the legislative changes are huge. “They’re taking away local governments’ ability to do their own planning,” she said. The nitty-gritty of the bills in question goes deep. Local governments are barred from restricting the size of any proposed developments in which the developer is willing to set aside 10 percent of the units built to tenants making 80 percent ​— ​or less ​— ​of the area median income and is also willing to pay prevailing wages. Such developments would be required to provide only one parking space per unit. If located within half a mile of a bus stop, no parking would be required. Governments that seek to whittle down the number of units of such proposals can be fined up to $10,000 per unit. If malice can be demonstrated, the fines can be as high as $50,000 per unit. In addition, developers can recoup attorneys’ fees. Judges have been empowered ​— ​for the first time ​— ​to make basic land-use decisions. In the past, they were only authorized to order cities to correct such decisions that failed to pass legal muster. Applications must be processed faster. Proposals of 150 units or fewer must be processed within 90 days; those larger have 180 days.

Every city and county in the state must submit detailed eight-year zoning plans demonstrating how they can accommodate their fair share of California’s staggering housing demand. Nearly 340 of California’s local governments are falling seriously short of attainment; only 14 are actually meeting these goals. Santa Barbara is not one of the 14. Of the 4,099 housing units the City of Santa Barbara has sought to accommodate in its latest housing plan, only 16 percent ​— ​667 units ​— ​have been permitted. Planning Commissioner Mike Jordan terms the city’s performance “terrible.” He predicted the new laws will impose “a radical change” in how land-use business is conducted. As is often the case, Jordan appears to be of two minds about the new legislative regime. He cited a recent case of a four-story rental housing proposal slated for the 700 block of North Milpas Street. The developer initially sailed through the Architectural Board of Review (ABR) with glowing endorsements and an all-but-unanimous preliminary approval. But when it came time for the final approval, the project had generated considerable neighborhood opposition ​— ​it was too big, out of scale, out of character. The same ABR found the same project was inconsistent with the neighborhood character. Next month, the project goes to the City Council on appeal. Detty Peikert, architect for the developer, says the case highlights the need for “objective” design review guidelines. His client spent $800,000 on architectural and engineering plans after getting preliminary approval; the project, he insisted, didn’t change. Businesses need a more predictable and reliable review process, he argued.

Peikert’s client won’t be saved by those state bills. His proposal was submitted before they were passed, and besides, he’s not offering to set aside 10 percent of the proposed units ​— ​75 ​— ​to tenants composing the mythical “missing middle,” much talked about by urban planners. Planning Commissioner Lodge said that requirement, coupled with the bill’s prevailing wage mandate, is enough to discourage many developers from taking full advantage of the legislation’s advantages. “I don’t think we’re going to see a rush to the well,” she said. Jordan sees it differently. The housing crisis is real, he argued, and the same legislators who’ve stripped away much local control from city and county governments are not going away. “You don’t think they’ll be coming back?” he asked.

In the meantime, City Hall has created a task force to rewrite its design review guidelines, replacing subjective descriptions with objective descriptors. They’ll be meeting twice a week for the next three months; the issue is that serious.

The years Sheila Lodge has served were corrected on February 21, 2019, to state 32 years in service, not 50, and 12 years as the city’s mayor, not eight.

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