Jul 26 2022

Piedmont City Council Rejects Voter Control Over Zoning Reclassifications

Should Piedmont adhere to the the City Charter with voter control over zoning uses/classifications or forfeit control to the City Council?

What should come first – voter approval of zoning reclassifications/use changes or City Council approval of the Housing Element (HE) requiring the reclassifications/use changes?

The question is not whether or not proposed changes are good or bad; the question is who has the right to change the zoning usage/classifications? State laws have limited control over city zoning laws. 

The currently proposed Piedmont Housing Element defeats the Piedmont City Charter.

The City Council proposes to change usage on public property to multiple family zoning via the Housing Element (HE).  Piedmont Parks, the Arts Center, City Hall, Veterans Building, Blair Park, Skate Board Park, and Corporation Yard – historic buildings and uses are proposed for change of use.

Once the HE has specified in writing the locations of the required 587 new housing units and is approved by the City Council along with the state, the City of Piedmont is required to adhere to the zoning changes specified in the HE.  The Piedmont Housing Element and General Plan are firm government commitments to to the state, commercial developers, individuals, organizations, groups, property owners to be implemented during the 8 year HE term. 

The process being utilized by the City Council makes zoning changes/reclassifications the sole authority of the City Council rejecting the language within the City Charter that  requires voter control over changes/reclassification of zones.

Will Piedmont voters have an opportunity to approve the change of use/ reclassification per the City Charter, or will the City Council put zoning changes in the HE and require voter approval of the zoning changes after the HE is approved? Piedmont’s proposed HE requires zoning use/reclassification turning parks and public property into multiple housing. 

It has been publicly stated and proposed that park land would be declared surplus property and sold or reused/reclassified without voter approval.

Piedmont’s five zones are classified as: public, commercial, multi-family, single-family and single-family Estate – with all zones permitting single-family housing.   In Piedmont, the use determines the classification of a zone.

“Classified, Reclassified, and use” are keywords within the City Charter.

Voter approval on zoning is well established in Piedmont per the voter approved Piedmont City Charter.  Only voters can change zone usage/classifications.  Adherence to the City Charter is not a matter of how much it cost to adhere to the Charter; adherence is a matter of law. 

The words “classification and reclassifications”, describe the “use” within a zone as can be seen by reading the City Charter copied below:.

City Charter ARTICLE IX. General Provision

SECTION 9.02 ZONING SYSTEM The City of Piedmont is primarily a residential city, and the City Council shall have power to establish a zoning system within the City as may in its judgement be most beneficial. The Council may classify and reclassify the zones established, but no existing zones shall be reduced or enlarged with respect to size or area, and no zones shall be reclassified without submitting the question to a vote at a general or special election. No zone shall be reduced or enlarged and no zones reclassified unless a majority of the voters voting upon the same shall vote in favor thereof; provided that any property which is zoned for uses other than or in addition to a single-family dwelling may be voluntarily rezoned by the owners thereof filing a written document executed by all of the owners thereof under penalty of perjury stating that the only use on such property shall be a single-family dwelling, and such rezoning shall not require a vote of the electors as set forth above..  

Since all zones allow single-family development, Michelle Kenyon, Piedmont’s contract City Attorney, stated in regard to the HE’s proposed changes that multiple family housing is housing, and therefore allowed in all zones.   Kenyon has used other cities’ definitions of “classification and reclassification”, rather than relying on language found in Piedmont’s City Charter with “use” determining a classification.

City Attorney Kenyon has instructed the Piedmont City Council and Planning Commission that Piedmont voter approval of the proposed land use changes/reclassifications are not required because: no new zone is being created; no zone is  being enlarged; no zone is being reduced.  Importantly, Kenyon’s advice results in the ability of the City Council to change the use/ reclassification of zones without voter approval.

City Charter ARTICLE IX. General Provision:

SECTION 9.02 ZONING SYSTEM (Excerpt from above)

“provided that any property which is zoned for uses other than or in addition to a single-family dwelling may be voluntarily rezoned by the owners thereof filing a written document executed by all of the owners thereof under penalty of perjury stating that the only use on such property shall be a single-family dwelling, and such rezoning shall not require a vote of the electors as set forth above.”

As noted above, the City Charter allows property owners in the multifamily or commercial zone to rezone their property to exclusively be for single-family zoning.  The City Charter in this section informs the definition of “classification and rezoning” as “use” in the zones.  It is unknown how the Kenyon opinion accommodates the zone use/ classification  language written into the City Charter. 


The City Council has known for over a year, there would be significant challenges to Piedmont zoning to accommodate 587 new housing units in Piedmont; while other cities have allowed voter participation, Piedmont voters have not been given a chance to act on the zoning per the City Charter, The deadline for placing a ballot measure on the November 2022 ballot ends in August. 

What if voters do not approve the HE changes?  Are voters no longer permitted to approve  or disapprove the zoning changes?  Does the City Council plan to follow outside counsel advice and eliminate voter approval?

3 Responses to “Piedmont City Council Rejects Voter Control Over Zoning Reclassifications”

  1. Most people I speak with don’t know what a charter city is, let alone that Piedmont is one. A tutorial on this subject by PCA might be needed.

    Zoning defines the area (the zone) and what can be done in that area (the use). If not, what’s the point of drawing zones?

    The City Attorney seems to be reading only half of Article IX. Yes Council can change a zone area or use but that is predicated on a majority vote of the residents. Council is merely acting in a ministerial role.

    And Section 9.2 is informative. It spells out the one exception whereby land can rezoned without a vote. Ergo all other zoning changes require a vote.

    One proposal included in the Housing Element is to conduct a study of how the city charter creates impediments to new housing. The HE calls for this study to be conducted within the first year of the new housing cycle and for Council to consider removing the charter section that requires a vote of the community to reclassify a zone. Presumably this revision of the charter would require a vote.

  2. I have lived in Piedmont 46 years. I have seen a lot of change, but nothing like what Sacramento is now forcing on communities around the state because they know better than us about how we should live our lives..

    The City Charter should not be changed by a Bureaucratic decision. I believe the City’s leaders should honor the Charter and let the citizens decide this. It is painful to watch our elected leaders trying to circumvent the very citizens who elected them and paying for “outside counsel” opinions to justify it. I predict there will be expensive litigation and the only people who will benefit from this litigation — no matter how it comes out — will be the lawyers — not the citizens of Piedmont.

    This is a “State’s Rights” issue on the State level. Do local communities have the right to decide the nature of their community or does Sacramento have the power to force their current fad down people’s throats by threatening economic sanctions because “they know better?” Maybe people in small communities who don’t like the heavy hand of big brother should stop paying their State income taxes and give the money directly to their local government to make up for the money Sacramento is threatening to withhold. Would the immediate loss of revenue and the cost and optics of Sacramento prosecuting hundreds of thousands of California citizens for not paying their taxes get anybody’s attention in Sacramento? I really wish I knew the answer to that question.

    The population of California is headed for 40 million and we are running out of water and the State is burning — losing housing actually. So we really have a “population crisis.” But the fad in Sacramento among our progressive majority is that we have a “housing crisis” and the solution is to create more housing so the population can keep increasing. No plans to build more reservoirs or other sources of water except for the multi-billion dollar plan to transfer water from the North to the South which does nothing to increase overall water supply and merely allows the population to increase in an area where there is not enough water to naturally support that increase and prevent growth in the areas where the water is naturally located.

    So Sacramento’s current fad envisioned by Scott Weiner from San Francisco, is to force ADUs on all communities or to allow people to tear down their house and build a fourplex almost anywhere — basically first steps to turn residential communities into little Manhattan’s. I’m not aware of any analysis that has been done to evaluate the ADU idea, but the typical ADU is very small and I very seriously doubt that most ADUs in small communities like Piedmont will be low cost rentals. My anecdotal observation is that only people who can afford it are building them and they are not going to be low cost rentals to complete strangers who are going to be living in the middle of their back yard. They will be used for in-laws or nannies or some other purpose. Tearing down a house and building a fourplex in Piedmont generally does not work out financially, so our Planning Department is so desperate for ADUs, building an ADU is an excellent way to get approval for anything else you want to do to your property. If I wanted to tear down my classic craftsman house and build a fourplex, I could probably get approval to put a miniature oil refinery in my back yard. (Note to Planning Department: I’m just joking.)

    And so, to please Sacramento, Piedmont’s leaders want to change parks and tennis courts and pubic buildings, valuable amenities in any community, into apartment buildings. I think this is regressive for local communities.

    I believe our City leaders and Planning Department should let the citizens decide and not work so hard to circumvent them and, if they decide to disagree with Sacramento, to support their citizens — not fight them. If the citizens of Piedmont vote to approve these changes, I will disagree with them, but I will accept the result because I believe in the concept of Democracy.

  3. The PCA article and Mr. Keating seem correct: the City Charter requires a ballot measure before a property zone can be “classified or reclassified.” (Piedmont City Charter, section 9.02). This rule is codified at Piedmont Municipal Code section 17.02.010 (C), which states that city zoning ordinances are “subject to the City Charter” (including section 9.02). At the end of Section 17.020.010 (C), the rule also states that Piedmont cannot “change the zone boundaries, or change (reclassify) a property from one zone to another” without a vote.

    But this reclassification is exactly what the draft Housing Element (“HE”) seeks to do. Section IV.A.1.F of the HE (page 38) says that the City will allow multi-family housing (e.g., Zone C & D) on Zone B public lands. Currently, Zone B prohibits such construction. But the HE says the City plans to make zoning changes “within 3 years of Housing Element adoption” to allow this. If re-zoning requires a ballot measure, how can the City promise it to HCD? This zone “re-classification” position is hardly a solid one for the City. Can we honestly believe the HCD will miss this?

    A similar situation happened to the City of Davis. The Davis HE called for re-zoning “within 3 years” to allow for developing open space and agricultural lands. But Davis has a rule (Measure J) which required a vote to do that. Sound familiar? In January 2022, the HCD rejected the Davis HE plan, in part, because the re-zoning plan was speculative due to vote requirement.

    Our City Attorney and the housing consultants have all made their position abundantly clear: no vote is needed since building multi-family housing on city lands is not a “reclassification” (stated at 6/20/22 City Council meeting). Are those conclusions, and the plan to build out our city center and parks, really best for the City of Piedmont? Guess we’ll see next month.

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