Santa Barbara Faces Possibility of 80-Foot-High Projects

Housing Shortage Pits Local Control Against State Mandates over Building Height Limits

City Attorney Ariel Calonne ponders new state housing laws that strip cities of local control. | Credit: Paul Wellman

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For eons, the battle cry in Santa Barbara’s land-use wars has been “quality of life” and “neighborhood compatibility.” Thanks to a flotilla of new state laws ​— ​including one that would allow developers to build structures up to 80 feet high ​— ​such subjective judgments will no longer be allowed when it comes to judging the merits of proposed new housing developments.

The new laws were passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom to expedite the development of new housing statewide by limiting local land-use controls. Under the new laws, local governments will be allowed to restrict where and how new housing is built only if the planning rules are based in objective, numerically measurable criteria.

In addition, the legislature and governor imposed new limits on the number of design review hearings local governments can hold for proposed housing projects to no more than five. All this constitutes a seismic change for how planning has been conducted in Santa Barbara, where members of the city’s multiple design review boards and commissions frequently take far more than five bites of the planning apple. Here, “neighborhood compatibility,” however subjective, has long been the gold standard by which “the size, bulk, and scale” of proposed development projects have been judged.

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