Oct 4 2022

OPINION: City Council Candidate Bridget Harris Counters City Administrator Letter

Response to Letter from City Administrator

Everyone in Piedmont received a letter from Sara Lillevand, the City Administrator, dated September 30, 2022. The City Administrator is hired by the City Council and reports directly to the City Council. Therefore, we can assume that the letter was vetted and approved by the five members of the City Council.

The letter is extremely misleading.

  1. The letter is a not too subtle endorsement of three candidates to the City Council who oppose a vote on the Housing Element;
  2. As stated in the letter, the City has been working on the issue for 18 months yet this city-wide letter was sent five weeks before the election;
  3. The letter includes the statement that any future development would have to meet Piedmont’s design standards. This is not true, see Schreiber v. City of Los Angeles and Bankers Hill 150 v. City of San Diego. Both cases illustrate that the state’s Density Bonus Law supersedes a city’s local ordinances and zoning laws. The Density Bonus Law provides developers with incentives and waivers of building restrictions for set-backs, parking and height.
  4. The letter outlines the plan to include 132 homes on City-owned land (Moraga Canyon). This land is in Zone B (Park and Public Land). Zone C is zoned for Multi-family units. The plan is a de-facto re-zone which according to our City Charter requires a majority vote of the citizens of Piedmont.  Further, once the plan is approved a developer can enforce development using the state’s Density Bonus Law that overrides Piedmont’s design restrictions thereby making development economically feasible. At that point a vote will be too late.
  5. Piedmont Municipal Code §17.08.010 provides that “[i]f a use is not permitted or conditionally permitted, it is not allowed.” Piedmont Municipal Code §17.22.020 lists the permitted and conditional uses allowed in Zone B. Multi-family units are not permitted or conditionally permitted in Zone B. To build multi-family units on property located in Zone B requires a vote to re-zone the land pursuant to §9.02 of our City Charter.

Adding 587 units to the city of Piedmont will forever change the city.  We must delay submission of the Housing Element plan until we understand all ramifications of the plan. We must review available options and then vote on those options. True engagement by the community requires a vote and the result will be a viable Housing Element plan.

Bridget Harris, Piedmont City Council Candidate

Editors’ Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.

10 Responses to “OPINION: City Council Candidate Bridget Harris Counters City Administrator Letter”

  1. The Housing Element DOES NOT ADD 587 UNITS to the
    City of Piedmont. That is misleading and factually inaccurate. Two important steps must happen after the Housing Element is adopted. The City Code will be changed. That is a separate process that allows full public participation. Then, a project has to be submitted for City review. Again, that process allows for full public participation. The Housing Element is a PRELIMINARY PLAN. It allows the possibility of such construction IF a developer finds such a project to be financially worthwhile. A thorough review process for any proposed project will guarantee a project would be appropriate to the site and the neighborhood. Adverse impacts must be mitigated, always. Do not be afraid of change. We can do this, Piedmont!

  2. I believe Ms Roodhouse Loper’s comments to be incomplete. A “normal” multifamily project applied for in Piedmont may be subject to the normal city review and design standards. However, a project filed under the Housing Accountability Act limits a jurisdictions’ ability to deny a project except for impacts found to be in conflict with adopted health and safety standards. Impacts such as traffic or parking, or aesthetics and design are not health and safety impacts.

    Projects filed under SB35 allow only a 60 or 90 day review, depending on project size.
    She is correct that HE law does not require a city to build 587 units, but to locate and zone enough sites to allow the construction of that number without constraints.

  3. The comment by Ms. Harris is inaccurate in many ways.

    First, Piedmonters have repeatedly asked to be informed and involved in the Housing Element process. The City Administrator letter does just that: informs the public on the process and provides factual information about it. It is one among many communications, FAQs, surveys, and webinars hosted by the City and its consultants to inform the public for the last year and a half. The timing is not suspect or partisan. On the contrary, it is helpful, since it provides factual information on a process of Citywide importance, before a Citywide election.

    Second, the City Administrator’s letter is correct that any future development will have to meet City design guidelines, codes and regulations. The cases Ms. Harris cites are density bonus cases. The Density Bonus Law (California Government Code Sections 65915-18) was enacted in 1978 and applies statewide. Under that law, developers that include a certain percentage of affordable housing units in their developments can get incentives and concessions, usually in the form of extra height or waivers from local code requirements, such setbacks. But, it is not a “free for all.” Many, or even most, of the local jurisdiction’s design guidelines and regulations would continue to apply. And, the Housing Element law does not affect the applicability of the Density Bonus Law. In other words, developers could come now, prior to the approval of this Housing Element or any future zoning amendments, and invoke the Density Bonus Law to get more height or other waivers and concessions in their proposed developments. It is a pre-existing law and it is misleading to invoke it as part of this process.

    Third, Ms. Harris wrongly describes Zone B as “Parks and Public Land,” and an area where multi-family housing is not permitted. Zone B is actually a “Public Facilities” Zone, and already permits residential uses, in several forms: single family homes, ADUs, emergency shelters, supportive housing and transitional housing, as those uses are defined in the Government Code. (Piedmont Planning Code, Section 17.22.020). Emergency shelters, supportive housing, and transitional housing are forms of multi-family housing. Hence, it stands to reason that the Housing Element’s proposal to build some multi-family housing in Zone B falls within what is already allowed.

    Further, as correctly noted by Ms. Loper, the Housing Element does not add 587 homes to Piedmont. It is just a preliminary, long-range planning document to show where such residential development could potentially go. After it is approved, it will be followed by implementation actions such as Planning Code amendments, design guidelines, etc. All along, residents will have an opportunity to weigh in, and environmental review will inform where the housing could go, and how to mitigate any potential impacts. And, private market rate and affordable developers would have to come in, present their applications, subject themselves to the approval process, etc., before getting a permit to even start construction.

    Ms. Harris misleadingly states that Piedmonters should vote on the Housing Element, and chose among “available options.” The Housing Element is part of a state-required process, and we do not have the option to opt out. We have options to implement the state-mandated housing allocation and process, locally, and that is exactly what the City has been doing. But we cannot say “no” to the mandate to find capacity for the 587 units. The time to appeal the allocation has long passed. Now is the time to finalize our long-range plan, and start looking at implementation.

    Ms. Harris closes her statement by saying that 587 units will “for ever change the City.” But we all know that 587 units will not materialize overnight. The approval and construction processes are complex, and at most, we will get a fraction of those units actually built. If we get some, particularly the affordable and moderate income ones, then our city will be changed, for the better. It will be a City that embraces its obligations under state law, and its moral obligations to do its part to solve the housing crisis.

  4. Ms. Harris cites two cases when State law preempted local zoning codes by allowing developers of mixed use projects on private land to claim incentives/concessions needed to make affordable housing projects feasible. However, she is wrong to suggest in Paragraph 4 that a developer can do this for housing projects on City-owned or public land. The City will be the landlord/lessor for all projects on public land and may require through the Development and Disposition Agreement (DDA) that any project built on public land conforms w/ all of the City’s goals, including its design/building standards. In other words, a developer on public land must negotiate w/ the City and can not force the City through the State Density Bonus law to grant incentive/concessions (or variances to the zoning code) that the City does not fully agree with and support.

  5. With all due respect, the City Administrator’s letter skirts the line between information and an appeal. It certainly provides factual information about the Housing Element but clearly advocates for one position.

    Is transitional/emergency/supportive housing really the same as multi-family housing? If you characterize one broadly as temporary and the other as permanent, then no. But there may be other interpretations.

    Presumably Zones A and E, the single-family zones on private land, cannot be changed to multi-family zones without a vote. That’s not an issue with this Housing Element.

  6. The broad interpretation from the City Attorney is that only changing the zoning map, not changing the uses and standards of a zone, will require a public vote (although a detailed written explanation of what the opinion is remains missing). Garrett’s presumption that Zones A and E are not at risk from high density housing seems uncertain.

    Mr. Wu and Ms. Ruiz-Ezquide, like Ms. Roodhouse Loper, are describing only a conventional project, which would be subject to extensive review, conditioning and mitigation. However, via the Housing Accountability Act and SB35, the state has removed most local authority to deny or reduce the density of affordable projects in many situations. These new laws require streamlined approval processes and the inability to deny a project containing the requisite proportion of affordable units as I’ve stated above.

    Nevertheless, I, like most of us, would like to see the HE go forward to HCD. Then, it’s the HCD response that will layout what we will need to actually do.

  7. My two cents as a professional planner who deals with these issues everyday.

    Transitional housing and emergency shelters were added to Zone B eight years ago without a vote because state laws enacted at that time required each city to have at least one zone where these uses were permitted, and Piedmont did not have any. So the City skirted around the Charter-mandated vote issue to ensure compliance with State laws. However, now just because transitional housing is allowed doesn’t mean that the Charter somehow permits multifamily housing without a vote. Mr. Henn offers a persuasive argument that adding multifamily uses to Public Facility zone is a reclassification on the face of it and requires a vote. The City should have faced this issue head on one or two years ago rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

    However, having a vote on whether one use or another should be permitted in some zone is not going to solve the City’s housing puzzle and obligation to accommodate the RHNA. If the vote to allow multifamily in some zone fails, then what? We would have a mess on our hands.

    At this late stage in the game we need an overall sensible plan, portions of which may well require voter ratification post-adoption. The City Administrator’s letter offers a balanced, sensible approach, although the Moraga Canyon housing would ultimately require a vote, regardless of what the City administration asserts. Same with allowing small plexes in some walkable and amenities-accessible zones in the city that we should encourage.

    City decision-makers should keep this in mind when finally adopting the Housing Element — at the end of it all, there may still be a vote to clear up regulatory uncertainty or ward off litigation, so they need to make sure the plan they vote up is one that would find community support.

    There is also a mistaken impression, including in some of the discussion here, that a site the City’s shows for low-income housing will be built with that. The State allows sites to be counted for low income if they have “default density” minimum of 30 units per acre. Given how the market works, it is more likely that these sites will get built with market-rate rather than income-restricted housing (except sites that are City-owned, where the City as the landowner is obligating itself to proceeding with that).

  8. I am a younger resident, I am 40 years old and have two small children in PUSD schools. I grew up in Piedmont: my parents bought their house on Hillside in 1968 and raised me and my three siblings here. I want my children to understand how privileged they are to live in Piedmont, and how wonderful it would be if friends of theirs or any folk who aren’t millionaires could possibly afford to live in Piedmont. I also want them to understand how our government works, and I would like their elders to set examples for them on ways in which to honestly and altruistically interface with one another, telling the truth and stating fact, looking to those who know how “housing” works, how bureaucracy works (for better or for worse) and how to work together as a community on such a topic as housing. This website does not make me feel that this kind of communication is happening, nor does it make me excited to raise my children in a bubble where folks don’t even want to have the conversation about how our city might slightly change (for the better). I would love to have a conversation with Bridget to understand her feelings and thoughts around this. If she is willing, please reach out: amywgriffith@gmail.com. Many thanks for hearing me out.

  9. Coming late to the comments, as I read them one important issue stands out. Piedmont’s essential character is the product of thoughtful design review also known as objective standards. Mike Henn’s comment highlights a critical issue going forward that works specifically against objective standards: the State taking over local authority.

    City Staff is aware of the concern of many residents and is now addressing thoughtful design review for multi-family in zone D along Grand Avenue. This is critical.

  10. Thanks Rajeev. Your perspective as a planner is helpful in this thread. Two questions:
    Are you saying that “small plexes” anywhere in Piedmont would require a vote or just the rezoning of areas to have theses duplexes built. The first case is SB9 plexes that the property owner can implement – would this require a vote? Or are you suggesting the rezoning of zones like single family, public facilities and the houses of worship would require a vote before duplexes are built?

    Isn’t the city as owner of the public sites motivated to go quickly and build income-restricted sites? The City has $2M it must spend by December 2024 on low income housing on public land. And aren’t the market forces good for Piedmont, with our good schools and low crime? Won’t the city partner with a non-profit to quickly develop the canyon sites by 2024?

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