Pleasanton Weekly

Opinion - July 30, 2010

The $2.5 million settlement

The City Council has approved paying legal fees totaling $2.5 million as part of a settlement agreement with two affordable housing coalitions that successfully sued Pleasanton to remove the city's long-standing, 29,000-unit housing cap. A total of $1.9 million will go to Urban Habitat and Public Advocates to partly reimburse those agencies for legal costs they claim were more than $4 million. The rest has already been spent in legal fees incurred by Attorney Tom Brown, an outside legal counsel who represented the city of Pleasanton in lawsuits dating back to 2006. As troubling as these payments are in a recessionary environment when the growth trend for municipal revenue is falling, it could have been worse. By accepting the ruling of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch, who declared the housing cap illegal under state law, the council avoided legal costs that could have been far greater had the city appealed Roesch's ruling. Defending the housing cap ordinance to the state Court of Appeal or beyond would have been foolhardy, especially when all of the professional legal advice given to the city said an appeal would be a losing effort. The housing cap, recommended by former mayors Ben Tarver and Tom Pico and approved by more than 80 percent of the voters who cast ballots in a 1996 referendum, was the first and only such law adopted by any city in California and probably would have been declared illegal then if they and the then-City Attorney Michael Roush had tested its validity.

Even so, the cap served a purpose by limiting the rapid residential growth of the mid-1990s and allowing the school district and utility agencies to plan an orderly expansion of schools and sewer, water and roadways deemed necessary when the city reached build-out at 29,000 homes. That hasn't happened yet, but with 27,000 homes and apartments already built, the cap put the city at odds with newer state housing requirements that want Pleasanton to build more than 2,000 units in the near future to accommodate its growing workforce and affordable housing needs. Nor will the elimination of the cap lead to runaway growth as looked possible in 1996. Growth management strategies already in place will limit new housing permits to no more than 350 a year, a number Pleasanton hasn't seen in recent years, and there's no reason that allowance can't be reduced if "boom times" come again. Other cities have those kinds of growth management rules in place and they have not been challenged by the state.

Instead of battling out Judge Roesch's decision in court, the City Council, in its wisdom, appointed a negotiating team consisting of Mayor Jennifer Hosterman and Councilwoman Cindy McGovern, along with City Manager Nelson Fialho and new City Attorney Jonathan Lowell, to meet with the affordable housing coalitions to develop a constructive settlement. That agreement, due to be officially approved at the Aug. 17 council meeting, gives the city continued control over its residential building and expansion policies while also meeting state guidelines. The conciliatory approach not only removes all legal threats against the city over its housing policies, it has also brought the affordable housing coalition and even State Attorney General Jerry Brown to a bargaining table that works to the benefit of all parties and serves as a model for cooperative efforts statewide. As Brown said after the agreement was reached: "This agreement clears the way for new jobs, less congested freeways and cleaner air (in Pleasanton). It requires homes to be built closer to where people work to reduce long commutes and create a more neighborly urban environment."

Last Thursday, the council met with the 22 members of its Hacienda Task Force who have been reviewing development plans for three high-density housing developments in the business park that will include 870 rental units with 130 of them reserved for very low income tenants in subsidized units that will be dispersed throughout the complex under the city's inclusionary housing ordinance. Where at first Roesch's ruling and the affordable housing coalitions' demands were ordering that development to proceed without city input, the comprehensive agreement now in place gives the task force time to complete its work with the likelihood that all who eventually live in this new development will benefit with properly planned parks, retail outlets and trails leading to the BART station nearby. It shows that sometimes court decisions, even when you lose, can have a lasting benefit.

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