A lengthy discussion of building heights Monday night that left the San Mateo City Council postponing a decision has led to what could be an intense two-week period in which city officials try to hammer out a deal with the citizens group trying to place a measure on the ballot to keep current limits in place for another 10 years.
Members of the citizens group San Mateans for Responsive Government have until Aug. 6 to reach an agreement with individual councilmembers regarding the terms of an extension of Measure P, which established 55-foot height limits in most parts of the city and restricted how densely housing and commercial developers can build. City Manager Larry Patterson and City Attorney Shawn Mason are also authorized to participate in the meetings.
Though the council can exercise its independent authority and place the group’s petition to extend Measure P 10 years past its sunset in 2020 on the November ballot by the Aug. 10 deadline, several councilmembers Monday night expressed interest in allowing the city’s General Plan update process determine whether the building restrictions address the city’s changing needs. Councilmembers also considered waiting until the next regular election in November 2020 to put an extension of Measure P on the ballot, after conversations about the city’s vision, changing needs and land use policy have taken place as part of the General Plan update.
Acknowledging the response the issue elicited from dozens of community members on both sides of the Measure P extension, Councilwoman Maureen Freschet weighed Measure P’s merits and the dramatic changes in the economy and housing demands that have taken shape since its inception. First approved by voters in 1991 as Measure H, 2004’s Measure P also required residential developments to provide at least 10 percent of below-market-rate units on site, and was seen as establishing the city’s first inclusionary zoning policy.
Noting she had been amenable to extending the measure five years in previous conversations with members of the residents’ group, Freschet said she felt both the effort to extend the measure 10 years, as well as another option councilmembers have considered to exempt areas near the city’s train stations from the building height limits, may impede the city’s General Plan process. The planning effort was initiated last year and is expected to last through 2020.
“The General Plan revision should be a true citizens initiative drawn on input from every element of San Mateo and reflect a collaborative stakeholders concept of what San Mateo we want to leave for future generations,” said Freschet.
Freschet said she would like to see future discussions of what a council-sponsored ballot measure could look like to include conversations about the sunset date and specific height limits that could be implemented in the areas considered for exemptions from the building heights.
In a phone call after the meeting, resident Maxine Terner, who helped organize the original measure in 1991, said members of the citizens group looked to future conversations with the council to bring the community together in working toward the same goals. Terner said the group is committed to getting the measure on the ballot this year, and is open to discussing different ways to achieve that goal.
“Our commitment is to give San Mateo residents the opportunity to vote on the initiative in 2018,” she said. “We just want the democratic process to be fulfilled.”
Before the council Monday night were several options on how to move forward with potential ballot measures for the November election. Though the citizens group obtained more than the required 5,185 signatures — or support from at least 10 percent of the registered voters in San Mateo — needed to get on the ballot, the initiative has been stalled by Mason’s determination that the group’s petition is defective because it violates a section of the state Elections Code requiring voter initiatives to state the substance of the law that would be enacted if the measure is successful.
Since council-sponsored measures do not involve a signature-gathering campaign, the council could have voted to place the citizens petition on the ballot at Monday’s meeting, but it would have done so at significant cost, explained Mason at the meeting. Because elections law requires the city hold an election between 88 days and 103 days after an election is called, the election would have had to be held in October at a cost of more than $400,000 if the council had voted for it Monday night. Councilmembers and members of the citizens group both voiced concern about the cost of holding a special election in October.
But if councilmembers opt to place a measure on the ballot at their Aug. 6 meeting, a vote could be held as part of a consolidated election alongside the state gubernatorial races at a much lower cost, explained Mason in a phone call after the meeting.
City Clerk Patrice Olds said in an email the county Elections Office estimated the cost of placing one initiative with full printed text on the ballot for the Nov. 6 election to be between $140,000 and $168,000.
Still on the table for the council’s Aug. 6 meeting is an option to place the measure on the ballot and direct Mason to file a declaratory relief action with the San Mateo County Superior Court so a judgment can be made on whether the petition is defective. Whether or not they are able to reach an agreement with the citizens’ group, councilmembers may also opt to support a ballot measure aimed at increasing the required below-market-rate units in residential projects from 10 percent to 15 percent and authorizing the City Council to establish different building height, density and intensity standards from those enacted by Measure P within the Downtown and the Hillsdale Station area plans.
Councilman Joe Goethals proposed exploring such an option in June with the hope of developing an option that could concentrate growth near transit centers, an alternative that garnered the support of resident Cliff Moon and several others who weighed in at Monday’s meeting. Moon was joined by many in urging councilmembers to lift the height limits near the city’s train stations, which he believed could open much-needed opportunities for renters and low-income residents to find an affordable place to live near transit.
Acknowledging concerns the city’s growth is affecting the quality of life of residents, Moon argued the stakes are much higher for those who don’t have a secure place to live.
“For renters and for people on the margins, quality of life comes down to am I going to be able to survive the next month?” he said.
But for resident Susan Shankle, concerns about how the city’s infrastructure, schools and water supply could keep up with the pace of development in recent years loomed large. Shankle said she strongly supported maintaining the city’s diversity, but wasn’t convinced the building restrictions stood in the way of achieving that goal and wondered what role developers have played in the growth in developments to date.
“Continued growth is unsustainable and building taller buildings is not the answer,” she said.
Councilman Eric Rodriguez voiced concerns about putting a measure with “carve-outs” for the building height limits near the city’s train stations, which could compete with the citizens-driven effort. Noting the high standard set for citizens initiatives to be put on the ballot, he said councilmembers should respect their effort and allow citizens to vote on the measure no matter how they may feel personally about the issue.
“I think it’s really very important to respect our citizens right to put measures on the ballot,” he said.
Acknowledging thousands of residents have voiced support for maintaining the city’s characteristics and keeping the building height limits, Goethals said he also weighs how to ensure it is an inclusive city with a diverse population. Goethals expressed his disappointment the building restrictions kept an additional 50 units from being built on two redevelopment sites in downtown San Mateo expected to make some 164 residential units available at a variety of affordability levels, an outcome that could prevent some 50 firefighters or police officers from living where they work.
“That’s something that we should talk about,” he said. “We’re not the same place we were in 1990.”
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