Facing a major decision on building height limits in San Mateo Monday night, the City Council opted to wait until its Aug. 6 meeting to weigh whether it will put to a vote in a special election this year a citizens-driven effort to extend building restrictions or wait to until November of 2020 to poll voters on the measure.
Waiting until the next regular election in November of 2020 to put on the ballot 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 — could afford the city more time to discuss the policy’s effects and its fit with changing needs as officials and residents participate in San Mateo’s ongoing General Plan update.
But it could also pause a call from the more than 7,000 residents who signed onto a citizens group’s petition to extend the building height limits 10 years past their sunset in 2020. 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.
In the next two weeks, councilmembers, City Manager Larry Patterson and City Attorney Shawn Mason are expected to meet with members of the citizens group San Mateans for Responsive Government to discuss several possible options. Officials could opt to put the citizens initiative up for a vote this year, which, because of a new state elections requirement mandating the city to put the measure on the ballot in a specific time frame, could mean the city could incur costs of more than $400,000 to hold a special election in October, Mason explained at the meeting.
Though Mason identified a defect in the way the text of the citizens’ initiative was presented to those signing the petition, the council could exercise its independent authority and place the citizens-driven measure on the ballot since council-sponsored measures do not involve a signature-gathering campaign.
Mark Wolf, attorney for the citizens group, said the group felt confident its petition was not defective because it included in the petition text demonstrating what it hoped to enact and only referenced portions of the General Plan that would not be changed. He also expressed the group’s desire to avoid holding a costly special election or directing 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, another option on the table Monday.
Several councilmembers and residents expressed a desire to wait until a process to update the city’s General Plan — a process expected to include conversations about the city’s vision, changing needs as well as land use policy — could inform future discussions on the restrictions on building heights and densities included in Measure P. Though proponents of the measure have advocated for keeping them in place while the planning process takes shape, others have argued an extension of Measure P could limit the conversations about the city’s future.
A council-sponsored ballot measure aimed at reconciling the city and state laws, increase 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 is another measure residents and councilmembers discussed Monday. Councilman Joe Goethals proposed exploring such an option in June with the hope of developing an option that could concentrate growth near transit centers. But whether that option could be put up for a vote is likely to depend on the fate of the citizens’ initiative.
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