San Mateo voters will have a chance to decide whether to extend restrictions on building heights and density next fall after the City Council unanimously decided to place a citizens-driven measure on the November 2020 ballot, according to a city press release.

According to the release, city officials also opted against pursuing litigation against the effort to extend Measure P, which was first approved by voters in 1991, was extended in 2004 and established 55-foot height limits in most parts of the city and restricted how densely housing and commercial developers can build. Measure P has also required residential developments to provide at least 10% of below-market-rate units on site. City Attorney Shawn Mason said the City Council has considered whether to initiate litigation against the extension effort in a series of closed session meetings.

Set to sunset in 2020, Measure P’s future has been debated in the last year after the citizens group San Mateans for Responsive Government in early 2018 collected more than 7,000 signatures in support of the effort to place a 10-year extension of Measure P on the November 2018 ballot. Concerns about the initiative’s implications on San Mateo’s General Plan update — a process initiated in 2017 and expected to include discussions on housing, land use policy, circulation, open space, noise, safety and conservation — as well as its effectiveness in boosting the city’s housing stock were raised as the City Council debated whether to place it on the November of 2018 ballot.

The legality of the citizens group’s initiative was called into question by a letter submitted to the city in June of 2018 by the San Mateo Building and Construction Trades Council, the San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bohannon Development Company. The letter alleged the group’s petition 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.

Prior to a City Council meeting in July of 2018, Mason informed the council the citizens group’s petition likely did not comply with the state’s full-text rule, which requires those who sign ballot initiatives be provided with all the information about what they are deciding, according to the release.

After months of discussion, the City Council opted in August of 2018 to focus its efforts on exploring a compromise ballot initiative on the November 2020 ballot. According to the release, the city and the citizens group were unable to reach an agreement on the terms of council-sponsored alternative measure, which would not have been held to the full-text rule in the state’s election code.

Though the council’s initial direction was to seek a judicial determination on whether the petition was valid, its position evolved over time in response to input from those on both sides of the issue and who asked to allow voters to decide. The release also cited the council’s concerns about the uncertainty of litigation and potential exposure to attorney fees.

“The city remains committed to focusing its efforts on providing a robust General Plan update process that encourages the public to have thoughtful discussions about policies that will help determine the future of San Mateo,” according to the city statement.

Mason said the city is likely to vote on placing the measure on the November 2020 ballot when it votes on any other measures that may go up for a vote next fall, which could happen in July of 2020 or August of 2020 and no later than 88 days before the election.

The council’s decision was welcomed by supporters of the Measure P extension effort as well as those who have harbored concerns about the effects of Measure P on the city’s housing stock.

Michael Weinhauer, a spokesman for San Mateans for Responsive Government, described the news as a welcome step in the right direction, but tempered his reaction in light of a formal vote he believes the California Elections Code holds the City Council to have within 10 days of the certification of the petition’s signatures.

Weinhauer felt the opportunity to have voters weigh in on the Measure P next fall would allow residents to focus on the city’s General Plan update process and let residents decide whether the voter-approved building height and density limits are what they really want. He noted the group’s efforts are rooted in a desire to ensure efforts to solve the housing crisis also involve conversations on building needed infrastructure, developing mass transportation and curbing job and office growth in the city.

“We’ll have a clear answer on that and that’s all we ever wanted,” he said. “We want the people to have a say in this.”

Evelyn Stivers, executive director of Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, felt the City Council made the right decision in giving voters a chance to weigh in on an initiative she has long believed to be flawed. Stivers said her group would be focused on helping shape the community’s General Plan by measuring the city’s housing and transportation needs and would decide what to do in response to the measure closer to when the election is held next year.

“It’s not up to the City Council to rewrite or fix or in any way change their poorly-crafted, deeply-flawed ballot measure,” she said. “We are committed to working with the City Council and with the community on the General Plan.”

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