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Attorney General joins in suit to invalidate Pleasanton's 29,000-unit housing cap law

Submitted by Staff on Thu, 06/25/2009 - 2:30pm

City Council vows to fight legal attack on measure voters approved in 1996

Following through on earlier complaints to Pleasanton officials, State Attorney General Jerry Brown joined a San Francisco affordable housing coalition yesterday in a 2006 lawsuit that seeks to overturn the city's 29,000-unit housing cap.

"Pleasanton's draconian and illegal limit on new housing forces people to commute long distances, adding to the bumper to bumper traffic along (Interstates) 580 and 680 and increasing dangerous air pollution," Brown said in a statement. "It's time for Pleasanton to balance its housing and its jobs and take full advantage of its underutilized land and proximity to BART."

The City Council, in a closed-door meeting last week, instructed City Attorney Michael Roush to defend the housing cap measure, which voters approved in 1996. Although some city officials, including Mayor Jennifer Hosterman, have said the law might not hold up in a court challenge, the only way the housing cap could be changed or cancelled would be in a court decision or by another public vote.

Most believe that given the public's view of traffic and other quality of life concerns within the city that voters would be reluctant to remove the housing cap that was designed to protect Pleasanton from more growth.

Pleasanton currently has about 27,500 homes and apartments, including those already approved for construction, leaving only 1,500 yet to be added before the city reaches build-out.

Brown's motion, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, joins the suit filed in 2006 by Urban Habitat and Pleasanton resident Sandra De Gregorio that challenged the city's Measure GG, the voter-approved housing cap and growth management program that voters approved in 1996.

In a letter to Hosterman and City Manager Nelson Fialho last year, Brown questioned the legality of the housing cap measure and suggested that it be deleted or changed in the city's revised General Plan, which was being considered at the time.

Nevertheless, the city's General Plan update, which is scheduled to go to the City Council July 21 for final approval, calls for the creation of 45,000 additional jobs by 2025 while retaining the housing limit.

Brown argues in his motion to intervene in the Urban Habitat suit that the state's regional housing needs assessment requires Pleasanton to provide 3,277 additional houses, apartments or condominiums by 2014, but the cap only allows for 2,000 more to be built, according to the attorney general's office. The attorney general said the lack of an adequate number of houses in the city is a significant cause of traffic congestion, pollution, and urban sprawl in the area.

The lawsuit contends that the cap violates state law, saying that the Legislature has declared that the availability of housing is a matter of "vital statewide importance," yet many workers are unable to find affordable housing within Pleasanton.

A 2005 study by the Association of Bay Area Governments found that 79 percent of the 58,000 employees working in Pleasanton at the time lived outside the city, and that their commutes can take two hours per day or more.

The housing shortage and long commutes come despite what the attorney general's office said was ample land for development, including property adjacent to the Pleasanton BART station, which is part of the Hacienda Business Park. Several proposals for adding more housing in the business park are pending before the council and Planning Commission, although they have been delayed pending the approval of the new General Plan.

"There is plenty of room under the housing cap for houses to be built,'' City Attorney Roush said. "The housing cap is a valid exercise of the land use."

Cliff Rechtschaffen, a special assistant to the attorney general's office, said the state's Department of Housing and Community Development brought the case of Pleasanton to the attorney general's office after finding the city out of compliance with their housing element requirements. He said the goal of the lawsuit, which was initially filed by the nonprofit group in October 2006, is to have the housing cap modified or repealed.

"The voters adopted it, but they can't adopt something that isn't lawful," he said.

In his suit, Brown contends that:

? Pleasanton is violating state law by enforcing a housing cap that prevents the City from accommodating its fair share of the regional housing need, as required by state housing element law (Gov. Code ?65583).

? Pleasanton's housing cap violates the state constitution, which prohibits cities from adopting ordinances that conflict with state law.

? Pleasanton's general plan is internally inconsistent, in violation of California Government Code Section 65300.5. The city's existing land use element contains the housing cap limit of 29,000 housing units, while its housing element recognizes that the cap must be addressed because it prevents the City from meeting its fair share of regional housing needs.

Brown's suit adds that if Pleasanton continues to enforce its housing cap, the consequences for the region include:

? Increased traffic congestion and longer commute times. Interstate 580 has some of the longest commute times in the region, with evening eastbound commuters delayed 7,410 hours and morning westbound commuters delayed 5,120 hours in 2007.

? Urban sprawl. Communities outside of Pleasanton will continue to lose farmland and open space to accommodate Pleasanton's workers. These communities will have to build more schools, fire and police stations to keep up with anticipated growth.

? Increased greenhouse gas emissions. More people will be commuting for longer periods and over greater distances. Pleasanton's CO2 output was 1.388 million tons in 2008. When the city is projected to reach 105,000 jobs in 2025, it is estimated its CO2 output will increase to 1.940 million tons. The increase is the equivalent of adding 120,000 cars to the road every year.

? Increased dependence on foreign oil.

Brown said that transportation is the largest contributor to California's greenhouse gas emissions, pointing out that the California Air Resources Board estimated that transportation is currently responsible for 38 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Transportation accounts for 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area.