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Los Altos council talks density bonus law, hiring lobbyist

With an aim to preserve the small-town feel of Los Altos, the city council last week amended density bonus regulations and considered hiring a lobbyist at the state level to address housing issues.

The council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Neysa Fligor absent, to fine-tune the regulations to limit the use of developer incentives, and directed Councilwoman Anita Enander, who is attending housing conferences over the next few weeks, to return armed with information that will help the council move forward with a plan to “protect” Los Altos.

The most frequently discussed housing legislation this year – State Sen. Scott Wiener’s proposed Senate Bill 50, designed to encourage high-density housing near transit hubs – has been tabled until January, and council members have differing views on how to monitor the effect of laws like it on city government. But alarm bells are ringing, as the council expects related legislation to find its way to city committees before a single leader can say the words “local control.”

“The existing mechanisms for getting information are not fast enough,” Councilwoman Anita Enander said at the July 9 meeting.

Hitting close to home

The city’s Planning Commission works alongside the council to ensure that applicants proposing multifamily or multiuse developments are giving as much back to the city as they are getting. When the density bonus amendment appeared before the commission for review May 16, Commissioner Ronit Bodner voiced support largely due to her belief that projects should not surpass the city’s standard 35% density bonus limit – guidelines that allow developers to secure building variances in exchange for providing affordable housing units or public space in their projects.

While the regulations are crafted to lay the groundwork for implementing the state’s density requirements, several council members have complained about the “double-dipping” many developers use in their proposals.

Double-dipping occurs when a developer uses an available incentive twice. For example, a developer could choose from the city’s list of “on-menu” incentives an 11-foot height increase twice, for a 22-foot height total, which could allow an extra story, a higher elevator tower and/or a roof deck.

Limiting developers to one on-menu incentive per project would curb double-dipping abuses, but it could hobble the council’s power to deny an application, city staff explained in their report on the issue. Currently, the council and the Planning Commission can contest a development if a majority of members believe the project would have a “specific, adverse impact” on public health and safety or the nearby environment. That impact must be “significant, quantifiable, direct and unavoidable,” according to state law.

While a developer is not required to select an on-menu incentive and could request an off-menu alternative, on-menu incentives are the preferred option because the city offers applicants who stay on-menu “an assurance of some type” by agreeing that the selected incentive does not have a “specific, adverse impact,” according to the staff report. Beyond challenging a project based on possible impact, the city can deny an application if it is contrary to state or federal law or “does not result in identifiable and actual cost reductions to provide for affordable housing costs or for affordable rents,” the staff report stated.

No matter the incentive a developer requests, if the city is going to deny an application, the burden of proving the project violates state law is on the city, Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins reminded her colleagues.

“This (amendment) moves us better,” said Enander, the council’s Planning Commission liaison. “It narrows the on-menu incentives but encourages developers to stay on it.”

Capitol lobbying

Mayor Lynette Lee Eng proposed hiring a lobbyist to represent Los Altos at the state level during a city budget hearing June 5. At that time, the council said futher discussion was warranted.

At last week’s meeting, council members said they were not opposed to engaging a lobbyist, but all but Lee Eng saw the benefit of sharing one with one or more small cities in Santa Clara County. In addition to the possibility of a lobbyist wielding greater sway in Sacramento with a larger number of jurisdictions under his or her charge, the council majority said it was the only reasonable financial option.

“We cannot afford our own (lobbyist) because we do not have the manpower,” Bruins said. “We do not have to take a haphazard approach tonight.”

With career experience at Peninsula Clean Energy, Councilwoman Jan Pepper cautioned that a lobbyist would require management. With the city’s small staff, touching base with the lobbyist every day – as is customary, Pepper said – is likely unrealistic.

City Manager Chris Jordan advised council members that past hiring a lobbyist, they should be drafting a legislative platform they could refer to each time a new bill comes up and they choose to give their input. Lee Eng advocated for a dedicated city lobbyist one final time while wrapping up discussion on the matter; all nearby cities have their own, she argued.

“We need our own voice,” the mayor said, her colleagues remaining silent.

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