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Attorney General Rob Bonta. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

Woodside Drops Mountain Lion Sanctuary Scheme to Avoid Housing Mandate

Lawsuit threat from AG ended town’s attempt to avoid having to build affordable housing

By Evan Symon, February 7, 2022 11:52 am

A ten day halt of new SB 9, housing project applications in the wealthy San Mateo County town of Woodside was ended on Sunday following a demanding letter from Attorney General Rob Bonta in which he threatened legal action. The division was over the town’s plan to declare itself a mountain lion sanctuary as a way to avoid having to build affordable housing.

The controversy dates back to a January 25th Town Meeting during which all housing applications falling under SB 9, a 2021 law that allows housing lots to be split to allow up to four more units on the parcel for increased housing, were postponed due to a clause in the law that prohibits development in areas that are endangered species habitats. Specifically, through an emergency ordinance, they claimed that the entire town of Woodside was a habitat for the Mountain Lion, which is currently pending as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. The exemption quickly became national news, with state officials scrambling to find a way to stop it.

They finally responded on February 6th after a week of controversy. Attorney General Bonta sent a letter to Woodside Town Manager Kevin Bryant informing them that, legally, they could not exempt all their parcels from state law by declaring themselves an endangered species habitat and that the emergency ordinance did not bear a real or substantive relationship to the welfare of those who it impacted. Bonta also said that not only would SB 9 and certain government codes be broken, but the California Constitution as well. Finally, the AG threatened a lawsuit against the town if they didn’t comply with SB 9 quickly.

“It has come to our attention that the Town of Woodside has declared itself categorically exempt from SB 9 requirement that local agencies provide a ministerial approval process for certain housing developments,” said Bonta in his letter. “We have reviewed the January 27, 2022 memorandum by Jackie Young, the Planning Director for Woodside, that attempts to justify the exemption. Addressed to all Woodside residents as well as permit applicants, the memorandum declares that no parcel in Woodside is “currently eligible for an SB 9 project because Woodside, in its entirety, is a habitat for mountain lions.” Woodside has also adopted an urgency ordinance that appears designed to blunt the impact of SB 9. These positions are contrary to law.”

“There is no valid basis to claim that the entirety of Woodside is a habitat for mountain lions, a candidate for protection under the California Endangered Species Act. Habitat is land that has the capacity to support that species, including providing food and shelter. Land that is already developed with, for example a single-family home is not, by definition, habitat. That mountain lions appear in Woodside from time to time does not make any of its individual parcels mountain lion habitat.”

“They have made a claim which is not substantiated. The provided no evidence for their claim and SB9 does not allow for entire towns or cities to be declared off limits with the provision of SB9. It requires a parcel specific inquiry. If they don’t take the opportunity to get back on track and either withdraw their memo or amend it to comply with SB9 and the laws in the state of California, then we are ready and willing and able to file a lawsuit against them.”

Woodside reverses course on SB 9 housing applications

The town quickly responded on Sunday by holding a 90-minute closed meeting. Avoiding a confrontation with the state, the town quickly reversed its position, citing guidance from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. As the entire town cannot be considered mountain lion habitat, all SB 9 housing applications will now be open starting on Monday the 7th.

“The Town of Woodside will accept applications for SB 9 projects as of Monday, February 7, 2022,” the town said a Sunday announcement. “In the two weeks since the January 25, 2022, meeting, Town staff has received guidance from the Department of Fish and Wildlife on how to identify habitat, and how to properly implement this provision of the law.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife advised that the entire Town of Woodside cannot be considered habitat.  As such, the Town Council has directed staff to immediately begin accepting SB 9 applications.”

“Any interim statements made by any individual member of the Town Council represent personal views that do not represent the collective views of the Town Council.”

“The Town of Woodside has consistently exceeded its State mandated low-and moderate-income housing commitments and the Town Council remains focused on doing its part to alleviate the regional shortfall in affordable housing.”

Housing experts noted on Monday that the town tried but failed to find a loophole, although other attempts are likely to come soon.

“Reading between the lines, it pretty much just says ‘We tried to get around the law and keep our town as is, but you found a legal way to stop it, so we’ll back down.’ That’s it really,” said Terry Gaines, a housing planner to the Globe on Monday. “A lot of Californian cities and towns are trying to buck SB 9 and other bills aimed at denser housing or having more units in an area right now due to the state trying to up the amount of units in the next few years due to the housing crisis. Woodside failed in this on Sunday, but you can bet other places are trying more loopholes right now.”

“Also, cities may find ‘problems’ with lots developers want to make into new housing. Everything from having old trees on the property to negative traffic impacts to using CEQA and local housing laws against them by finding new problems, like the lot unable to have a minimum amount of green space. We’re going to be seeing a lot more cases like Woodside in the coming years, and honestly, probably a lot will succeed in stopping new housing too.”

New SB 9 housing applications are now being accepted in Woodside as of Monday morning.

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3 thoughts on “Woodside Drops Mountain Lion Sanctuary Scheme to Avoid Housing Mandate

  1. The very Democrat, very liberal, wealthy town of Woodside, just screwed themselves over with their leftist voting. That entire area strongly supports Democrats with fund raising. Atherton, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto… they are all going to be ruined by the people they supported.

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