The city of Los Altos increased its budget for legal services in the middle of the fiscal year, reflected in the next two budget cycles approved by the city council at its last meeting. The move may prove fortuitous, as developers Ted and Jerry sued the city last week.
Sharif Etman, the city’s administrative services director, and his colleagues are likely relieved they calculated higher legal costs after the Sorensen brothers, owners of 40 Main St., filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Altos in response to the council’s failure to grant their appeal of their development proposal through State Senate Bill 35, legislation signed into law in 2018 aimed at streamlining standards in cities that have not met their affordable housing requirements.
A tale of two analyses
In April, Dan Golub, the Sorensens’ lawyer, appeared before the Los Altos City Council to argue, frustration obvious on his face, that the city’s Planning Department was reading SB 35 in a manner that contradicted other agencies’ interpretations, including the California Department of Housing and Community Development. A representative of HCD wrote a letter in support of Golub and the Sorensens, which they attached to their appeal.
Golub said the city’s “objective standards” used to evaluate the compliance of Sorensons’ project were not in fact objective. Golub was not alone; around the same time he reached out to the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund and the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, attorneys got wind of the case as word spread via the legal grapevine.
“There are not that many SB 35 projects, so when there is one, it tends to make its way to us,” said Ben Libbey, California Renters Legal Advocacy (CaRLA) and Education Fund intake paralegal.
A blog post by Libbey’s colleague Sonja Trauss describes the city of Los Altos as “a wealthy suburban enclave” and “comprised primarily of low-rise single family neighborhoods.”
“Los Altos has permitted relatively few new housing projects in recent years and has thus far failed to meet even their above-moderate income (Regional Housing Needs Assesment) goals,” Trauss’ blog post reads. “The community is not affordable whatsoever. The median home price is over $3.3 million and average rent for a one-bedroom is over $3,000.”
Libbey said many cases CaRLA takes on are in cities like Los Altos, but some are in denser areas like San Francisco.
In contrast to another local, well-known SB 35 project, the Vallco Town Center development in Cupertino, the issue prohibiting the Sorensens’ project from gliding through the approval pipeline primarily involves the city’s definition of “compliance” within the parameters of SB 35.
“One of the people who brought the case to our attention did so because they heard from people within Los Altos that this project was an example of why SB 35 is broken,” Libbey said. “(People felt like) the development was being forced on the community. (Conversely,) it is fundamentally an example of the law working as it’s intended.”
Libbey echoed a point Golub made in his original appeal of the council’s denial: The latest Sorensens’ proposal is much more beneficial to the community than their previous design of 40 Main, which featured strictly commercial space.
“We want a regulatory environment to encourage housing, and this is perfect,” Libbey said of SB 35. “It allows the developer to take a project and turn office space to some commercial and a decent amount of residential with subsidized affordable units.”
If the city doesn’t settle the lawsuit, there are multiple points of contention the Sorensens and other developers could argue in court. At the top of CaRLA’s list are the city’s alleged lack of consistency in enforcing “objective” standards (the Sorensens are being held to standards not applied to other developers, Libbey said); the city’s alleged failure to report a “legitimate” reason for denial of the 40 Main project prior to the 60-day deadline (city officials contended they should be able to submit concerns after the deadline, something they may concede, Libbey added); the city’s formula for considering what is residential property (it refused to count residential parking space, which HCD disagreed with); and the city’s evaluation of parking lifts despite its lack of policy for the amenity (one the Sorensens’ architect, Bill Maston, included in his sketches).
On the last argument, Libbey said the city is “welcome” to institute a policy on lifts, instead of citing a diagram that allegedly applies to a parking ramp and not a lift.
“Another concern raised in the appeal hearing was that the entrance and exit for parking wasn’t ADA accessible,” Libbey said, calling the claim “completely suggestive.” “The plans themselves state specifically they will be ADA accessible. One of the council members had looked at the plan and extrapolated width and height not present in the plans.”
City of Los Altos officials denied a request for comment due to an ongoing policy of not discussing pending litigation.