Per contractual terms, GreenWaste Recovery needed consent from its municipal customers to proceed with its sale to an international conglomerate. Twenty other cities signed off on the transfer of their respective franchise agreements to MIP V Waste LLC, a Macquarie Asset Management subsidiary, but Los Altos Hills pushed back to save residents more than $4 million over the 15-year term of the town’s franchise agreement with the garbage hauler, new City Manager Peter Pirnejad said Thursday.

“We really took this opportunity to leverage as much as we could possibly get,” Pirnejad told city council members during their monthly meeting.

He recognized and thanked city staff and residents who worked together to negotiate better terms for the town.

The compromise between the town and GreenWaste somewhat resolves what Councilmember Linda Swan referred to Thursday as a “real thorn in the side of a lot of residents.” It means less-expensive rates and the likely return of some services like collection on narrow, steep streets, which became more expensive with the signing of the original agreement in July 2019; GreenWaste has pledged to work with the town on a revised collection plan.

Councilmember Stanley Q. Mok, also pleased, repeated a Spanish maxim he shared when announcing the possibility of better rates to the Environmental Initiatives Committee in October.

“As they say, ‘más que nada’ – something is better than nothing,” Mok said. “So this is really a great win for the city of Los Altos Hills.”

Temporary solution to SB 9

The council spent much of Thursday’s relatively zippy, four-hour meeting discussing an urgency ordinance to govern housing development expected come Jan. 1, when California Senate Bill 9 goes into effect. Council members approved the ordinance text planning commissioners had suggested, with some minor tweaks to help protect the town from future civil litigation, like that described in a letter San Francisco-based housing advocacy group YIMBY Law sent them late Thursday.

“Passing and extending this ordinance will serve no purpose other than to signal to the public that your town is an elitist, exclusionary community who would rather face an embarrassing, expensive lawsuit in order to remain elitist and exclusionary than to follow the law,” the letter stated.

Council members repeatedly bristled at the suggestion of elitism. Mok said it’s not incumbent on current Hills residents to make the town affordable to everyone.

“If we don’t do anything today, then that basically means that SB 9’s going to come full force to us, and we’ll just have a line of contractors lining up to ministerially divide the lots that we have,” he said. “So, I think that before that happens, we have to do something.”

SB 9’s authors hope the law will create more housing by removing barriers impeding the subdivision and increased density of single-family residential lots; it limits a governing body’s ability to regulate what structures are developed on split lots.

But Los Altos Hills prides itself on its 1-acre-plus properties, and town staff and residents hustled to create the urgency ordinance, which offers property owners incentives to keep their land intact and limits development opportunities for those who choose to subdivide. There are exceptions and numerous conditions for each route.

Owners who don’t divide are allowed up to four structures on the property: a primary residence; an accessory dwelling unit; a junior accessory dwelling unit; and an “SB 9” unit that may vary in size depending on whether certain setback and floor-area calculations are met.

The ordinance limits owners undertaking an SB 9 subdivision to two structures on the new lot: a primary residence and an SB 9 unit or two SB 9 units. All newly constructed units must be affordable to residents earning incomes in the “low” (between 50 and 80% of the area median income) and “very low” (less than 50% of the area median income) ranges, a condition that could help the town reach its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, state-imposed requirements for the construction of housing across income levels.

As of the ordinance’s approval Thursday, it is in effect for 45 days. It’s possible for the council to extend the ordinance during noticed meetings for up to two years, but they cannot change its text.

Mayor Kavita Tankha characterized the council’s actions as a necessary stop-gap employed until there is sufficient time to develop a more thoughtful reaction to SB 9 in the form of a permanent ordinance.

The council’s approach to SB 9 is a method for discouraging density that could place a rural community like Los Altos Hills at risk, she explained.

“To me,” Tankha said, “it’s about making sure that any development that happens starting Jan. 1 is not at risk, it’s not in areas that could pose a threat to life and safety, whether it’s in a fault zone, whether it’s in a high fire-risk zone, a flood zone. So that’s the intent as far as I’m concerned.”

For full details on GreenWaste franchise changes and urgency ordinance rules, visit losaltoshills.ca.gov. Find the agenda for the Nov. 18 city council meeting and download the agenda packet, which includes supporting materials.