Pleasanton’s battle for local control over housing could reverberate around California

Pleasanton officials expect a plan they will unveil next week will resolve a dispute that has stalled the city’s housing plans.

The outcome of the lawsuit at the core of the dispute could set a precedent for how California cities plan for housing and meet state-mandated requirements.

Last March, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled that Pleasanton’s voter-approved housing cap was illegal and that the city had not done enough to set aside land for affordable housing. The court found that Pleasanton, a city of about 70,000, had been out of compliance with the state’s Regional Housing Need Allocation since 2001.

The city’s housing cap, established in 1996, limited the number of units in the city to 29,000 — less than 1,500 units from the number already existing.

The judge gave the city about four months to come up with a way to address the stipulations of his ruling and also barred the city from issuing non-residential construction permits in the meantime.

City Manager Nelson Fialho said that a committee working on a settlement will present its plan to the City Council on Tuesday. He wouldn’t provide details.

City officials have been meeting with representatives from Urban Habitat, the fair housing advocate that filed the suit in 2006, and its law firm, Public Advocates.

“I’m optimistic about these discussions and our ability to meet housing guidelines, meet state requirements and maintain local control,” Fialho said. “The future looks bright for Pleasanton because of the way we approached these discussions.”

Fialho said the cap was established at a time when residents were concerned about “runaway growth” that was a problem for some suburban cities that were expanding rapidly without much long-term planning or oversight. After the cap was challenged a few years ago, city officials chose to fight the lawsuit hoping to maintain local control.

“We have a spotlight on us, but every community has the ability to influence what it looks like,” Fialho said.

Richard Marcoantonio, a managing attorney with Public Advocates, said it seems as if the major issues are being addressed. The plaintiffs in the suit, he said, were concerned about the legality of the housing cap and whether the city had zoned sufficient space for residential use and affordable housing, especially for families.

In addition, the California attorney general’s office challenged an environmental impact report the city commissioned as part of an update of its general plan.

The lawsuit has garnered attention around the state because residents in many communities oppose higher-density zoning for housing and large developments, Marcoantonio said.

“The court’s ruling is already being taken very seriously by cities all over California,” he said.

Fialho said one of Pleasanton’s main challenges is that it doesn’t have much land left for housing and city officials are looking for ways to accommodate growth.

Some of the city’s major development areas include the 124-acre Staples Ranch, which is part of unincorporated Alameda County, and a portion of the eastside of town that has vacant land and a city dump.

Alameda County Surplus Property Authority, the entity that owns Staples Ranch, has plans to build a 720-unit senior housing complex, a retail center with an auto mall and an ice skating facility affiliated with the San Jose Sharks hockey team.

In response to the lawsuit, Pleasanton rezoned vacant land in the Hacienda Business Park area from office to residential before Judge Roesch issued his ruling. But the zoning change did not satisfy him because it included a clause that the he saw as a disincentive to developers.

Areas around public transit, such as a new BART station under construction near Stoneridge Shopping Center, could provide opportunities for higher-density, multifamily housing, Fialho said.

Ken Kirkey, planning director for the Association of Bay Area Governments, the agency in charge of the Regional Housing Need Allocation in the Bay Area, said some communities in the region are sticking to an anti-growth mentality but many others are beginning to change.

“There’s been quite a shift in recent years in the region,” he said. “Many communities are more concerned with the quality of growth rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to growth.”

ABAG changed its methodology for housing allocations in 2006, placing higher requirements on communities in urban areas and those close to public transportation.

During the discussions to resolve the lawsuit, Fialho said Pleasanton wants to keep local control over its housing and land-use planning and to restore its ability to issue building permits.

“I have been very pleased with the efforts that the city has been making to resolve this,” Marcoantonio said. “I’m feeling hopeful that we may get there.”

Blanca Torres covers East Bay Real Estate for the San Francisco Business Times.
Contact her at btorres@bizjournals.com or (415) 288-4960.
Read her blog postings at Bay Area BizTalk.