Maureen Freschet

Maureen Freschet

Though San Mateo officials considered adopting a resolution to keep in place voter-approved building height limits until the city’s 2040 General Plan update process is complete, they opted on Monday against approving the statement aimed at supporting the city’s long-range planning effort after members of a citizens group and housing advocates, among others, raised concerns about its implications.

First approved by voters in 1991 as Measure H, 2004’s Measure P established 55-foot height limits in most parts of the city, restricted how densely housing and commercial developers can build and also required residential developments to provide at least 10 percent of below-market-rate units on site.

Measure P will sunset in 2020, and its future has been debated in the last year as the city embarked on an effort to update its General Plan, a process initiated in 2017 and expected to include discussions on housing, land use policy, circulation, open space, noise, safety and conservation. Though the General Plan update process was initially estimated to be completed by 2020 and coincide with the expiration of Measure P, concerns about the effort’s aggressive timeline drove officials to extend the timeline into 2023, according to a previous staff report.

Because the building restrictions set by Measure P do not automatically expire Dec. 31, 2020, city officials would be required to approve a General Plan amendment to change them, a process City Manager Drew Corbett said could take 18 to 24 months.

Deputy Mayor Maureen Freschet acknowledged the concerns voiced at Monday’s City Council meeting that the proposed resolution could be viewed as an endorsement of Measure P and also that it did not go far enough to reassure residents about Measure P’s future since the council could vote against it at a later date. She emphasized that the proposal was in no way intended to be an endorsement of Measure P and was aimed at instilling trust in the General Plan update process, adding it was a good faith effort to assure the community of the council’s commitment to seeing the General Plan process through to its end before making any major changes.

“Clearly, it’s not a solution,” she said of the proposed resolution, according to a video of the meeting. “But it is an indicator of the will of this council to respect a fully inclusive General Plan effort where all of San Mateo can participate in mapping the future of our city.”

For resident Jordan Grimes, a study he said shows the challenges of increasing the city’s stock of below-market rate housing units under the city’s current height and density limits was emblematic of concerns he has had about Measure P. Grimes urged officials not to adopt the proposed resolution, noting he was worried it would be perceived by some community members as an endorsement by the council of Measure P.

“At a time when we are trying to get as much housing as possible, and I know the council supports that goal, the idea of continuing to support Measure P and the idea that the community might mistakenly think that the council supports Measure P is pretty concerning to me,” he said.

San Mateans for Responsive Government

Though resident Maxine Terner voiced appreciation for the commitments officials outlined in the proposed resolution, she alleged the proposal did not provide real protections since future councils can vote against it at a later date. Terner, who led an effort last year to extend Measure P 10 years past its sunset date in 2020, estimated at least two elections will transpire before an updated General Plan is adopted.

“The new council will have the power to rescind your resolution and approve new mega-projects with just three votes,” she said. “This is why we’re going through a General Plan process, to see what the community wants future development to look like.”

Spearheaded by the citizens group San Mateans for Responsive Government in early 2018, the effort to put a Measure P extension on the November 2018 ballot gained favor with more than 7,000 signatories but was later found by the city attorney to have violated 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. After months of discussion, the City Council, which would have been required to place the initiative on the 2018 ballot, opted in August of 2018 to focus its efforts on exploring a compromise ballot initiative on the November 2020 ballot.

Terner said the proposed resolution says what the petition signed by more than 7,000 individuals says except for the length of time the Measure P extension would be in effect. She advocated for officials to place the resolution on the November 2020 ballot with a timeline to coincide with the General Plan update effort, noting that placing the measure on the ballot would respect the desire of those who signed the petition last year to vote on the issue.

General Plan process

Though he said he was indifferent as to whether the resolution passed, Councilman Eric Rodriguez agreed wholeheartedly with the principles behind it and the message that it sent to the community about the council’s commitment to a thoughtful and thorough General Plan process. Also a member of the General Plan subcommittee, Rodriguez said he supported the steps the city has taken so far as part of the General Plan update to gather input from community members as well as data on the impacts different levels of density will have on the city’s parking, traffic, infrastructure and affordability.

With more data and feedback to surface as the General Plan update unfolds, Rodriguez advocated for seeing the General Plan process through before any big changes are made.

“For me, it’s not an endorsement for or against Measure P, it’s just wanting to make a prudent decision,” he said. “I think by supporting this resolution or at least the principles behind it … it sends a message to the community that we want to reach as many residents as possible and we’re going to take it very seriously before we make decisions that [are] going to impact future generations of San Mateans.”

Though Mayor Diane Papan acknowledged the proposed resolution was in part aimed at reminding residents that a robust public process would be required to amend the city’s General Plan and change the height and density restrictions set by Measure P, she recognized the potential for the proposal to cause confusion among the public about the General Plan process. Observing hesitance among her fellow councilmembers to adopt the resolution, Papan pegged the conversation as an opportunity to understand any attempts to change the restrictions set forth by Measure P would require at least 18 months starting January of 2021 no matter who is serving on the council.

“We wanted to reiterate to the community that we are committed to this process,” she said. “I think the General Plan process is where these discussions happen.”

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