Pleasanton's costly housing cap
The Pleasanton City Council Tuesday night deferred until its April 20 meeting a decision on how to proceed on a court's ruling that declared the city's 1996 housing cap illegal. The council's response to the ruling should be a no-brainer. Accept the verdict and move on. Although voters approved the housing cap referendum by an overwhelming majority, many were no doubt misled by leaders who arbitrarily came up with 29,000 units as the absolute number that could ever be built here. The measure was billed as necessary to protect the city's infrastructures -- sewers, water capacity, streets -- from more volume than they could handle although no such studies were ever made. Former Mayor Tom Pico has acknowledged that the number was crafted by leaders who wanted to limit growth to make sure Pleasanton never became another high-density city resembling San Mateo or Sunnyvale. The cap worked, cooling the appetites of major apartment house builders who took their developments elsewhere during the late 1990s and early in the decade that just ended.
But the cap also triggered angry responses from those who felt shut out, including Urban Habitat, an affordable and workforce housing watchdog organization that filed a suit against Pleasanton in 2006. It claimed that the 29,000-unit cap violated the state's Housing Element Law in that it prevented Pleasanton from accommodating its regional "fair share" housing numbers. On March 12, Judge Frank Roesch of the Alameda County Superior Court agreed. In a ruling, he has ordered Pleasanton to cease enforcing the housing cap and to delete any reference to its restrictions in the new General Plan just approved or other planning and zoning documents. Until then, the city is barred from issuing any commercial building permits, a ruling that has already stymied efforts to proceed with attracting a Fortune 500 company that has been eyeing a large tract in Hacienda Business Park and another firm planning to move here from Livermore. Until the council complies with the court's ruling in zoning law changes that satisfy Judge Roesch and Urban Habitat, these business prospects and others have to delay their plans to move to Pleasanton, or go elsewhere.
If the housing cap served a purpose, albeit illegally since 1996, its use is no longer needed. Pleasanton, like other cities in California that never bothered with a fixed housing cap, now has in place growth management controls that have yet to be contested by the state or organizations such as Urban Habitat. In Pleasanton, new residential development is limited to 350 permits a year, far more than the number issued in the past three years. Some cities limit the number to as low as 50. Also, Roesch, Urban Habitat and the state are not ordering Pleasanton to build any houses. All the city has to do is to rezone sufficient acreage to allow for another 3,277 housing units, including 2,524 affordable homes, the state's Regional Housing Need Allocation through 2014.
There's another reason the City Council should accept Roesch's decision and move on. According to an analysis by new City Attorney Jonathan Lowell, the city's (a.k.a. taxpayers') legal expenses litigating this case since its inception in the fall of 2006 are approximately $500,000. Those are fees paid to outside counsel Thomas B. Brown of Hanson Bridgett and his associates and do not include the extensive "in-house" work of city staff and former City Attorney Michael Roush. The city may also have to reimburse Urban Habitat for its legal fees, which could be significantly more than Pleasanton's are already. An appeal, which legal experts familiar with the case believe would be futile, would cost taxpayers at least another $250,000. On April 20, we hope the council members vote to resolve the situation for the benefit of the community. We know they can do it.