Los Altos council holds special meeting, braces for housing-related litigation

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Updated plans for a five-story, mixed-use building are posted outside 40 Main St., despite the Los Altos City Council’s rejection of an appeal in April. Owners Ted and Jerry Sorensen are among the plaintiffs suing the city over the decision.

The Los Altos City Council was slated to convene two hours prior to Tuesday’s meeting – held after the Town Crier’s press deadline– to discuss a pair of lawsuits filed against the city and its entities. Both lawsuits stem from housing-related applications rejected earlier this year.

GoldSilverIsland Homes LLC is suing the city over the council’s failure to allow developer Ying-Min Li to subdivide his property at 831 Arroyo Road after major public pushback.

The other case involves 40 Main Street Offices LLC and tenant protection groups the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) and the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF), which consolidated two suits to become a petitioning powerhouse against a Senate Bill 35 application the council denied for a downtown property.

Defining ‘consistency’

In a 3-2 vote May 28, council members rejected the proposed subdivision of Li’s Arroyo Road plot, which would have split the property into a 10,029-square-foot interior lot and a 13,404-square-foot corner lot. Councilwomen Jeannie Bruins and Neysa Fligor dissented. In the resolution certifying the denial of the application, city staff said it was rejected on the grounds of lack of compliance with the Los Altos General Plan and its Housing Element.

The day of the subdivision discussion, Li’s legal team sent the city a 42-page document detailing the merits of his request, as well as the efforts he had made to work with the city. His attorneys aimed to address all of the major concerns raised by neighbors opposed to the subdivision, who showed up at both Planning Commission and council meetings.

“On May 23, 2019, (Li) emailed the mayor to communicate that on the condition the city council reconsiders and approves the application, (he would be) willing to voluntarily agree to ... limit building height to one story for both (parcels), comply with neighborhood CC&R 40-foot setbacks from the street line for both (parcels) and the new home at parcel 2 will face Arroyo Road,” wrote Monchamp Meldrum LLP partner Paula Kirlin in the letter. “(Li) also stated he further agrees to a recorded deed restriction documenting the above requirements.”

Kirlin cited case law to allege that the city’s basis for the denial was “inconsistent and factually inaccurate.” The complaint, filed in Santa Clara County Aug. 13, called the city’s suggested changes to 831 Arroyo Road “minor” and acknowledged that city leaders were “faced with neighborhood opposition” from a “small but vocal” group of project opponents when they made the decision to reject the application.

Matthew Francois, lead attorney for GoldSilverIsland Homes, stated in the complaint that the council’s decision “must be set aside” and the city should be ordered to issue Li a certification of approval due to the council’s failure to act on the project within 30 days from the Planning Commission’s report, as required by law. According to city documents and the lawsuit, the commission unanimously recommended approval to the council Feb. 7, and the council considered that recommendation March 26. No formal action was taken until 76 days after the commission report was provided to the council via the city clerk, on or before Feb. 11.

After “exhausting all non-judicial remedies available,” the complaint states, the petitioners are demanding approval of the project, compensatory damages and litigation expenses.

No court dates have been set, according to the county’s public portal.

On the grounds of affordable housing

After nine years of fighting for approval to turn their office at 40 Main St. into a three-story complex, Ted and Jerry Sorensen in November 2018 changed course and submitted a new application for a five-story, mixed-use building under SB 35. Signed into law last year, the legislation aims to streamline standards in cities that have not met their affordable housing requirements.

Tasked with reviewing the Sorensens’ application through SB 35, city planners deemed the project noncompliant due to its failure to meet the city’s “objective” standards. The Sorensens and their attorney Daniel Golub appealed the decision April 6.

At the time, Golub alleged that city officials did not alert the Sorensens that their application was incomplete and did not specify the violations in their Dec. 7 letter, sent within SB 35’s required 60-day window. He also contended that the city’s standards used to evaluate the project were not in fact “objective.”

Despite Golub’s argument and a California Department of Housing and Community Development’s letter supporting the project’s approval, both the council and the Planning Commission stood with staff and denied the appeal.

Golub reached out to two of the plaintiffs involved in the consolidated case: CaRLA and SFBARF. Both organizations advocate for the construction of more homes in the Bay Area and monitor local governments closely to ensure they are adhering to state housing laws. The co-executive directors of CaRLA, Victoria Fierce and Sonja Trauss, are also named as petitioners.

The plaintiffs seek damages including a statement declaring what is appropriate under SB 35 and the related state density bonus law, an injunction urging the city against denial of the application and the cost of the suit and attorneys fees. A hearing for the petition is scheduled 9 a.m. Nov. 1; the location is pending.

The city has declined to comment on both cases in the past due to its long-standing policy of refusing to discuss pending litigation.

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