The California Court of Appeals Friday ruled that the San Mateo City Council did not meet the Housing Accountability Act requirements when it denied a condominium development proposal in 2018, disappointing the city but emboldening housing proponents.
San Mateo Mayor Eric Rodriguez said the city was disappointed with the court’s decision, with the San Mateo city attorney looking at the case to provide further options to the council.
“We disagree with the court’s ruling but, at this point, it’s too early to say how this could or could not change things moving forward,” Rodriguez said.
The Housing Accountability Act limits a city’s ability to reject proposals for housing developments that satisfy general plan and zoning requirements. A ruling in the case, called California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund vs. San Mateo, found the “design guideline the city invoked as part of its reason for rejecting this housing development is not ‘objective’ for purposes of the HAA, and so cannot support the city’s decision to reject the project,” the court’s decision said.
The Planning Commission denied the project in 2017 because of concerns about height. The City Council considered the appeal Feb. 5, 2018, but it denied building the four-story, 10-unit multifamily residential building that would have been a block on North El Camino Real at 4 W. Santa Inez Ave. To the west of the project was a two-story house on West Santa Inez Avenue and a single-story house on Engle Road. The council made the decision based on height differences between properties and encouraged the applicant Tony Gundogdu to submit revised plans. In a petition filed weeks later, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund alleged the council’s decision was subjective and illegal under the state’s Housing Accountability Act, which requires projects be denied for objective, well-defined criteria. A trial court initially denied the petition before being overturned Friday.
The court ordered the city to vacate its action Feb. 5, 2018, upholding the Planning Commission’s decision to deny the application and reconsider the challenge to the commission’s decision.
The city had argued its position was defensible legally because the proposed development objectively violated the city’s multifamily design guidelines aimed at smoothing height differences between properties with transitional features, such as setbacks.
City Attorney Prasanna Rasiah said his office was still reviewing what the court had to say before it decided on its options, which include appealing or accepting the decision.
“Right now, we are still considering our option. We have not made any decisions on the next steps,” Rasiah said.
He said the court ruled the city’s design guideline was not sufficiently objective under the HAA and upheld the constitutionality of HAA.
Rodriguez noted the project did not meet design guidelines and faced strong opposition from neighbors concerned about the height differences between the development and residential housing. However, he noted that expanding housing in California was critical, and San Mateo would continue to assist in helping. He called the housing issue important to the City Council, but he said the city was still deciding what it wanted to do next regarding the court’s decision.
“It’s too early to decide what our next steps are because we are poring through the case,” Rodriguez said.
CaRLA Executive Director Dylan Casey said the decision sets a precedent that cities and trial courts will follow and strengthens the Housing Accountability Act. Casey believes the decision will help lead to housing element plans that ensure housing is allowed and approved by cities, even if it becomes controversial.
“We are really happy to see the Court of Appeals back up the key function of the Housing Accountability Act,” Casey said.
He said the decision could also lead to San Mateo revisiting its design review standards for developments to look at more uniform, objective design standards for applicants interested in housing development, a key distinction in the case. He believes it will also affect other cases throughout the state.
“I think the case is going to be important in ensuring the housing element process will actually lead to housing down the road,” Casey said.
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