Our View | RIP, Local Control in California

Our View

By The Signal Editorial Board

Local control. Ah, we remember it well. Those halcyon days when a local government, like the city of Santa Clarita, could establish standards for things like new housing construction that would promote the creation of an aesthetically pleasing, livable community for all of its residents.

In California, those days are gone. 

Thanks to the Democratic Party supermajority in the state Legislature, along with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, any hint of local control over new construction has gone out the window in the name of affordable housing.

It is absolutely true that California has a housing crisis, and a next-level housing affordability crisis. So, in that regard, we get it: California needs more affordable housing.

But the state has heaved the pendulum too far in pursuit of that worthy goal.  

Last year, the Legislature passed, and Newsom signed, a package of housing affordability bills aimed to make it more affordable for people of all income brackets to live in California. But, in so doing, the bills also tossed out the baby with the bathwater, eliminating the ability of a local government, like Santa Clarita, to say “no” to a project that would not meet community standards, or to even require revisions to a project to make it more livable and compatible with the community.

This month, we saw one such project come home to roost — and, down the road, the potential for others.

First, the one that’s actually before the city now for what essentially amounts to a courtesy “heads-up,” an information-only peek at the project, because the city’s hands are tied by the new state laws:

Last week, the City Council’s Development Committee — consisting of Mayor Jason Gibbs and Councilwoman Laurene Weste — received a presentation from city planners on a proposed 128-unit, 100% affordable housing complex to be built at the intersection of Flying Tiger Drive and Sierra Highway.

City planners informed the two council members that the project does not meet several city standards. For example, the city’s zoning map would allow 71 units on the property. They’re going to build 128, whether the city likes it or not. 

And, it’s not even subject to review by the city Planning Commission or the City Council. As an affordable housing project, the state has ruled that it and others like it throughout California will now be approved “by right,” without being subject to review by local government and without being subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, so long as they meet certain state criteria.

Yes. The political party that’s supposedly most concerned about the environment has tossed aside CEQA, so long as it’s in the name of affordable housing.

“If this was not an affordable housing project, or if these laws did not apply, it would be subject to review by the Planning Commission as a conditional use permit,” Senior Planner Dave Peterson said of the Flying Tiger Drive project. “But in this case, the state law prohibits the review and approval by the Planning Commission. So, it’s not reviewed by them and not by the City Council.” 

As such, the project gets a waiver for the city’s building height limit for the property. It’s also not subject to the city’s normal minimum parking requirements — in fact, if it were much closer to a Metrolink station the city couldn’t even require it to have parking at all — and the city isn’t allowed to require the project to include things like balconies, patios or lockable storage for the apartments’ future residents. The city’s hands are also tied on many aesthetic issues, right down to the kind of fencing that can be required for the project.

You know. The things that would make it a nicer place to live, some of which wouldn’t even come at great cost to the developer.

“So there’s no storage for any of the apartments and there’s no place for the children to play,” Councilwoman Laurene Weste said, after hearing the project offers about one-third less “outdoor” space than the city usually seeks on such a project.

Looking past the Flying Tiger Drive proposal, there’s another project potentially in the wings that could have a similar scenario: Shadowbox Studios is proposing a major new studio complex just north of the Placerita Canyon community. 

The project would bring good-paying jobs in a desirable industry to a valley that in some circles has become known as “Hollywood North” because so many film and TV productions shoot here. In a lot of ways, the Shadowbox proposal “fits” with what city planners have been aiming for when it comes to economic development and jobs-housing balance.

But, there are a number of Placerita Canyon residents who are objecting to the Shadowbox proposal, citing concerns about traffic impacts and the rural aesthetic of their community. Understandably, they are very protective of the quality of life in their bucolic corner of the Santa Clarita Valley.

To them, we would just say, be careful what you wish for. 

If a roadblock gets thrown in front of the Shadowbox studio plans, what might you suppose a land developer would then seek to do with that property? Could we see an affordable housing project in the studios’ stead, a project that, like the Flying Tiger Drive plan, would cut the city and the community out of the review process?

Now, we’re not aware of any such specific alternative under consideration. We’re just peering into the crystal ball, and if it played out that way, you can bet Placerita Canyon residents wouldn’t like what they see — and neither they nor the city would have a single thing they could say about it. Affordable housing is a Big Government state mandate and local review is, at most, a formality before the state breaks out its rubber stamp.

And let’s not forget a little thing called the Westfield Valencia Town Center. With Westfield looking to get out of Valencia, what could become of that?

The overarching state philosophy overriding the city amounts to this: “We’re going to shove as many new units as we can into your community, to be built as cheaply as possible, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Local government exists for many reasons, and one of the primary reasons is community planning. What amenities should be required of a project to ensure its livability, compatibility with the surrounding community, minimizing unacceptable environmental impacts, and protecting the overall quality of life for a community’s inhabitants? Those should, primarily, be local decisions.

The state doesn’t care, so long as a lot more cheap housing gets built, environment be damned, and your quality of life be damned.

Californians would be well-advised to remember this at the polls.

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