Surf City council balks at approving state-mandated housing plan

California

Referring to state housing laws as the “governor’s mandate,” Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland and two other city council members blocked approval of the city’s massive housing plan for the rest of the 2020s.

But rather than kill the city’s 1,164-page “housing element” outright, the sharply divided city council united behind a motion to postpone the matter for further consideration at its next city council meeting on April 4.

Strickland and one other council member cited environmental concerns for blocking the homebuilding plan.

“I don’t believe (Gov. Gavin Newsom’s) housing crisis, his housing mandate, is more important than the health and safety of our citizens,” Strickland said during the council’s meeting Tuesday, March 21. “That’s why I’m opposing this housing element.”

Strickland was joined in voting down the housing plan by Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark and Councilmember Pat Burns.

Councilmember Casey McKeon, who frequently votes with the majority, recused himself because of a potential conflict of interest. That resulted in a 3-3 vote, one vote shy of the majority needed for plan adoption.

“I cannot in good conscience support (this) item,” Van Der Mark said before the vote, complaining about the effects of housing construction on clean air, water supplies, traffic and the city’s wetlands. “I don’t believe the benefits of building outweighs the consequences of destroying our city.”

The decision raised the specter of past housing fights that erupted over the city’s refusal from 2015-20 to comply with state demands it revise its last housing element. That resulted in a 2019 lawsuit against the city. The two sides returned to court earlier this month, trading state and federal lawsuits over housing on March 8 and 9.

At stake is a state-required blueprint for how the beachside, Orange County city of 199,000 will increase housing by 2030.

Although some council members tied the state’s homebuilding mandate to Newsom, it’s actually rooted in a 53-year-old statute lawmakers began strengthening under Newsom’s predecessor.

The law requires all California cities and counties to develop periodic housing plans that include affordable housing. More recent legislation stiffened penalties for failing to adopt a substantially compliant housing element, including the authority for the state to sue recalcitrant cities and levy fines up to $600,000 a month for failing to have an approved housing element.

Huntington Beach, already 17 months late in adopting a state-approved plan, had been ordered to make room for 13,368 new homes this decade — enough homes for 29,475 residents, Van Der Mark noted.

But members of the Huntington Beach council refused to approve a required statement that the need for housing overrides potential environmental impacts like air and water pollution, noise and overtaxed public facilities like parks.

“(The state housing department) is requiring us to sign a statement … that we believe that the benefits of these affordable housing projects override the negative impacts that they can cause to the environment,” Strickland said. “The state is forcing our speech and violating our First Amendment rights.”

Huntington Beach’s conflict with the state boiled over again in the past two months when the city stopped accepting applications for duplexes in single-family neighborhoods under Senate Bill 9 and stopped accepting applications for backyard “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, under state laws easing restrictions.

The state sued the city on March 8. The city retaliated by filing a federal lawsuit against the state the next day.

On Tuesday, a federal court judge rejected the city’s request for a temporary restraining order barring the state from enforcing fines and penalties for failing to comply with housing laws. The judge ruled there’s no risk of irreparable harm to the city since such penalties aren’t imminent.

In addition, the council voted 4-2 Tuesday to resume accepting applications for SB 9 and ADU projects, a move that may make the state’s new lawsuit moot.

During the public comments portion of Tuesday’s city council meeting, nine residents spoke in favor of adopting the housing element while three either opposed the plan or criticized Newsom.

City staff and Councilmember Dan Kalmick argued the environmental statement is just a technicality.

The city has been working on the housing element since the summer of 2021. Without approval of the environmental statement, said City Manager Al Zelinka, “then the rest of it is for not.”

“I’m disappointed … that after going through all of this work that we’re getting hung up on a technicality,” Zelinka said.

Kalmick said it’s ironic that plan opponents cited environmental concerns when they recently rejected a city purchasing plan to use 100% renewable products.

Burns renewed his calls “to fight state overreach,” complaining about threatening letters state offices have been sending to the city.

“It’s just bullying,” Burns said. “What Sacramento is trying to do to us is just negate our influence and take over.”

City staff and plan supporters warned the council could be putting the city in legal jeopardy without a housing element, including the risk of lawsuits, lost state funding, fines, the loss of control over permits and, ultimately the appointment of a receiver to choose what housing plan the city will adopt, city staff said.

“If you don’t like a loss of local control,” responded Councilmember Natalie Moser, “then you’re really not going to like the potential ramifications of not adopting a housing element.”

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