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Posted on: October 26, 2022

The Myth of Local Land Use Control

graphic of houses

City Manager Chris Hazeltine shares his insight on the challenges cities face with affordable housing density bonus laws.

During public comment at the Oct. 18 Poway City Council meeting, a resident expressed his frustration at those of us on the dais and said, “you have failed us.” He was upset with a recently approved housing project in his neighborhood. As a long-time dedicated public servant, I was hit hard by his words. Not because of the action we took, but because of the action we were unable to take.

The homes in this project are 3,000-plus square feet with lots averaging 8,500 square feet. Enabled by recent changes and more aggressive interpretation and enforcement of state laws, the number of homes increased from 15 to 20 because one unit was designated as “affordable housing.” 

These state laws minimize a city’s discretion. The Density Bonus Law, for example, forces cities to accept unlimited “waivers and reductions” of development standards that would otherwise physically preclude the project, including lot size, height, and setbacks. The developer is able to dictate the project layout and the city must waive certain development standards to accommodate it.

What happened with this project isn’t unique to Poway. Cities across the state are grappling with the affordable housing density bonus laws and the impact it has on the landscape of their neighborhoods. And what we’re finding out is that challenging it will only lead to a hefty bill in attorney’s fees and potential penalties, if a case earlier this year is any indication. A community group challenged a Density Bonus project near Balboa Park in San Diego because it was much larger, denser, and out of character with neighboring development. Ultimately, the Court of Appeal rejected the challenge and upheld the strict rules regarding waivers and reductions of development standards.  

We pride ourselves on being the “City in the Country” and that over half of the city’s 39.4 square miles is dedicated open space. We’ve taken a strategic approach to growth and have been thoughtful about what that means in our community. For instance, when we revised our Poway Road Specific Plan in 2018, we created a “town center” approach to identify the areas that could support potential housing and, in the end, this lowered the number of units that could be built along the entire Poway Road corridor. 

Poway has a mandated housing goal of 1,319 dwelling units, which includes a mix of market rate and affordable units. This goal is established by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) via the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), which is required by the state and broken down by income levels. The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) monitors all cities’ compliance with achieving their RHNA goals. State housing law has also been recently strengthened and given more “teeth” to punish cities that do not comply with their RHNA allocation.

Our decision makers are accountable to look out for the best interests of our residents, but we can’t reject a project that complies with pertinent regulations and state law. Nor can we impose a development moratorium unless public health or safety are threatened. So where do we go from here?

Based on past experience, we know that there’s value in the community building respectful relationships with developers. We’ve done that in the past. The developer of one of the Poway Road projects reduced residential density and increased the amount of commercial space based on community input at a public planning meeting.

Not every developer will pursue the maximum density state law allows, but some will. We’ll leverage our relationships to promote compromise solutions to balance neighborhood concerns with state housing development mandates. And, as projects are approved, we’ll continue to hold developers accountable of the terms of their construction permits in an effort to go above and beyond to be good neighbors. 

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