Affordable Housing, Air Quality & Emissions, East Bay, General Plan, NIMBY, Tri-Valley

Court Invalidates the Pleasanton Housing Cap

In 1996, the City of Pleasanton adopted Measure GG, which set a strict housing cap.  Under Measure GG, no more than 29,000 units could be built within the city.  Although it took awhile, fourteen years later, Pleasanton’s housing cap has finally been ruled to be illegal.  Judge Frank Roesch, of Alameda County Superior Court, issued a decision declaring that Measure GG’s housing cap violates California housing law.  His decision went even further to require that the City rezone land in order to correct for previous housing shortfalls.

The litigation challenging Pleasanton’s housing cap has been in the works since 2006 and was reinstated in 2008.  In 2009, Attorney General Jerry Brown saw this case as an opportunity to augment his ever-growing portfolio on climate change, which includes not just lawsuits, but also comment letters that inform local governments when their efforts at planning and environmental review inadequately document impacts related to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  Brown initially provided Pleasanton with such a comment letter (PDF), informing the City that its updated General Plan and corresponding EIR were inconsistent, and therefore inadequate, as long as Measure GG’s housing cap was retained.  The Pleasanton situation fits especially well into Brown’s climate change portfolio, because Measure GG, if allowed to continue into perpetuity, would ultimately result in a gross housing-jobs imbalance.  Although Pleasanton was projected to nearly double its workforce by 2025, its residential capacity would remain frozen in time.  That means the vast majority of that workforce would be required to commute long distances from the Bay Area and the Central Valley on Interstate 580 and other heavily congested freeways, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite Brown’s commentary, the City stuck to its story, claiming that the housing cap was simply an example of a municipality legally bringing to bear its land use powers.  Brown then joined Urban Habitat’s litigation in 2009, which increased the publicity of the case while boosting Brown’s climate change credentials.  In August 2009, the court refused to dismiss the case, and now, in March 2010, the court has finally invalidated the housing cap.

Judge Roesch’s Decision

Last summer, I wrote a post that went into a fair amount of detail describing the General Plan, state housing requirements, Pleasanton’s growth projections, and the nexus to climate change.  I won’t repeat all of that information here, but if you are interested in more detail, or simply would like to refresh on the background, please check out that previous post.

The abridged version is that the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) is the result of a process that assigns to regions within California a certain number of housing units at all income levels.  The expectation is that regions will plan for the future, in order to accommodate California’s growing population.  The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) then translates those projections to the level of local governments within the nine-county Bay Area, so that each jurisdiction absorbs its fair share of the region’s housing need.  Measure GG is clearly problematic, because over time, ABAG would continue to assign housing allocations to Pleasanton — but Measure GG’s constraints would preclude the City from planning and approving those future units.  From Judge Roesch’s decision (PDF):

It is self-evident that the City cannot comply with the State statue [sic] requiring the City to accommodate its RHNA when the city is not permitted by its local law, Measure GG, to allow the number of housing units to be built that would satisfy the RHNA.

Indeed, Pleasanton is unable to accommodate the 3,277 homes it is assigned for the 2007-2014 RHNA planning period, being only about two thousand units short of reaching the cap.  The City also failed to account for some housing units that it had been assigned in the previous planning period, which ended in 2007.

As of the time of this writing, the Pleasanton City Council has not yet spoken to this issue, nor is it clear whether the City will seek an appeal.  It would be preferable for the City to move on, accept this decision, and carry out the rezoning necessary to comply with the ruling.  The City’s basic premise — that a municipality’s land use powers reign supreme — can only go so far.  Although local governments in California have traditionally retained essentially complete authority over land use decisions, the State has a clear interest in ensuring that all its citizens are properly housed.  The RHNA is a vehicle, albeit a rather weak one, that provides the State with a measure of oversight to ensure that this important interest is fulfilled.  Where the State has provided such a framework to guide local action, State mandates necessarily preempt local regulations.  Again, from Roesch’s decision, quoting the state Supreme Court:

“The Legislature has specified certain minimum standards for local zoning regulations” … even though it “has carefully expressed its intent to retain the maximum degree of local control …” … “Local legislation in conflict with general law is void.”

The City must know it is caught in a tough spot, and its own actions within the past few months suggest that it anticipated an unfavorable ruling.  The City amended Municipal Code § 17.36.060 (limiting building permits for new residential units) so that it allowed an exception to the building permit cap, if necessary to comply with the RHNA.  Introducing this exception eliminated a conflict with state law, at least with respect to the annual building permit cap.

The City also passed an ordinance, which approved the rezoning of three parcels in Hacienda Business Park to permit mixed-use development.  But Section 5 of that same ordinance refused to approve any mixed-use or residential development plan proposed for those rezoned parcels, until “PUD Major Modification for the entire Hacienda Business Park” had been completed.  Judge Roesch did not buy it, observing that “could take up a period of time ranging from one year to forever.”

The Hacienda Business Park rezoning, Roesch noted, “may start a process to cure the City’s failure in this matter, but is wholly inadequate to be considered a cure.”

Roesch then ordered Pleasanton to implement “non-illusory zoning changes” necessary to cure its housing shortfall from the previous RHNA planning period, which ended in 2007.  He also ordered the City to strike Measure GG (and related Measures PP and QQ) from all planning documents, and to freeze construction and development permits until the City’s General Plan is fixed.

The Measure GG housing cap placed the City of Pleasanton, as Judge Roesch aptly put it in his decision, “in clear violation” of state law.  Indeed, the notion of a strict numerical limit on housing units is fundamentally incompatible with the philosophy underpinning  California’s housing law — which both accepts population growth as a reality and at least attempts to hold local governments accountable, by requiring that they plan for future need rather than sticking their collective heads in the sand.  It would certainly not be fair for Pleasanton to readily accept job growth within its city limit but then refuse to absorb residential growth.  And yet, continued application of Measure GG would have produced precisely that perverse result.  Judge Roesch is to be commended for finally overturning Measure GG.

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Discussion

9 thoughts on “Court Invalidates the Pleasanton Housing Cap

  1. How could a stupid judge tell us what to do? Turn Pleasanton into another Oak city??? WTF

    Posted by tony | 17 March 2010, 2:36 pm
  2. Judge Roesch is a tyrant. California is a dictatorship. And if elected, Jerry Brown will become another Hitler.

    Posted by John Zeger | 22 March 2010, 1:13 pm
  3. Just a reminder that commenters here are both welcome and encouraged to express their opinions, and to critique both politicians and policies — but please keep the discourse civil and productive. Calling Jerry Brown “another Hitler” is incendiary, and it’s not a helpful way to call attention to what the strengths and/or weaknesses with his positions might be.

    Also, the “stupid judge” and “tyrant” Judge Roesch was simply doing his job: enforcing a state law that had been ignored. And in this case, there wasn’t much interpretation of the RHNA for Roesch to do; it was basically a matter of the numbers. Folks who are not happy with what the law actually says would be better off lobbying their legislators than taking it out on Roesch.

    Posted by Eric | 22 March 2010, 1:30 pm
  4. Whoh, everyone needs to chill for a minute. Although, I understand the motivation for the cap, it was wishful thinking to be sure, since the cap doesn’t match up with the jobs goal the city has in mind. The future workforce will need housing, and speaking as someone who grew up in Pleasanton, there are ample opportunities to increase housing while keeping it’s small town character.

    On more than one occasion did I see empty or underutilized lots scattered throughout the city. Hacienda Business Park is a great place for future mixed-use development, with plenty of space left over for future growth. It would be great if after this ruling the city closely examines how they can improve the city, focusing on increasing density on certain corridors, and/or redeveloping areas that sometimes feel separate from the city.

    Posted by Joel | 23 March 2010, 4:54 pm
  5. What makes Pleasanton so special that they think they shouldn’t have to build their fair share of new housing – it is desperately needed in the Bay Area and other surrounding cities are taking up the slack. As a result, everyone in the Bay Area suffers because of it in the form of increased median home prices, increased commuters and traffic, and more auto pollution.

    To any City, new housing costs money while new retail and commercial projects make money. Therefore, we have ABAG and other regional oversight to make sure cities don’t just approve a bunch of money making hotels while they avoid affordable residential projects like the plague. Can you imagine if ALL municipalities, or even just 25% of the cities, in the Bay Area put a static cap on housing the way Pleasanton did? Let’s just say… simply… it wouldn’t work.

    Posted by Casey | 2 April 2010, 11:28 am
  6. I just hope the increase in supply will bring down housing prices in this area. I live and work in this area and you have to spend over 600K for a descent condo! That is just unreasonable, and I really hope there is a dramatic drop in housing prices in the near future.

    Posted by Jason | 13 April 2010, 10:58 pm
  7. I have a question as to how this decision will affect other cities in California who also have stated population caps in their General Plans.

    Does the judge’s decision make population caps illegal in their entirety, regardless of the issues of their mandated RHNA, or does it simply make population caps that do not account for their RHNA illegal?

    Its an important distinction for those cities that want population caps in place for other reasons, and do not face the same issue of jobs generation that Pleasanton does (and resulting housing imbalance).

    Your thoughts are appreciated.

    Posted by Mike | 13 September 2010, 1:46 pm
  8. Hello Mike,

    The Pleasanton case was “ripe” in the sense that its existing housing stock was bumping up against the GG cap. In other words:

    #(existing units) + #(RHNA units) > housing cap.

    So it was a clear case where a local ordinance contradicted state law, because no matter what the City did, it would be violating either the ordinance or RHNA. That won’t be the case for cities that currently aren’t approaching their local caps. Emboldened by the Pleasanton result, it’s possible a plaintiff might try to bring the “unripe” case to see what happens — but the Pleasanton case didn’t specifically deal with what would happen for cities in that position. Judge Roesch didn’t state broadly “all housing caps violate RHNA.” He based his decision on the specific situation, where the local ordinance prevented the City of Pleasanton from complying with RHNA.

    Since the court didn’t deal with the “unripe” question, my best guess is that a local housing cap wouldn’t be invalidated until it comes into conflict with RHNA. That assumes that the city in question is doing all the planning required by RHNA. Of course, even if a city isn’t in danger of exceeding its cap right now, it will be at some point in the future. Note that Senate Bill 375 will change to a certain extent how regional housing needs are allocated among cities, and some cities will be assigned RHNA numbers that are higher or lower than what they are accustomed to from previous years.

    It’s worth noting that while the housing-job imbalance adds a policy “gloss” to the Pleasanton litigation, it wasn’t legally relevant to this matter. (This point is discussed more fully in this previous post.) In other words, the existence of a housing-jobs imbalance isn’t a prerequisite to violating RHNA.

    Posted by Eric | 13 September 2010, 2:50 pm

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