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CP&DR News Briefs August 6, 2019: San Diego Upzoning; HSR Shakeups; Wildfire Risk Assessment, and More

Brett Simpson on
Aug 4, 2019
San Diego Adopts Aggressive Upzoning Policy
The San Diego City Council tentatively approved a municipal code amendment to add a sixth development zone category for high-density housing near public transit and jobs-rich areas. The council’s unanimous vote will add “mixed-use” to the municipal code as the latest zoning category, after open space, agricultural, residential, commercial, and industrial. Under current zoning, such mixed-use developments require a special discretionary permitting process that’s often longer and costlier than other processes. Councilwoman Vivian Moreno expressed excitement for the boon such zoning will bring to the city, which she hopes will create walkable communities that provide residents access to commercial uses near their homes. “It’s refreshing to see this come forward after years of project applicants being required to process discretionary permits with additional cost, time and money,” she said to the Times of San Diego.

High Speed Rail Undergoes Management Shakeup, Diversion of Funds
Major changes are coming to California High-Speed Rail – with approvals and setbacks that have come to represent the push-and-pull of the elusive statewide rail vision. In February, facing a ballooning budget and significant slowdowns, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was temporarily curtailing the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles plan to focus on a Central Valley segment of the line. In May, the Trump Administration terminated a $929-million grant to fund the rail – claiming the High Speed Rail Authority exceeded agreed-to budgets and timelines. However, in a recent sign of progress, the Federal Railroad Administration assigned authority for environmental reviews to the state – which will streamline an often-delayed approval process. Additionally, the rail authority announced major management changes that limit ties to the consultant WSP, which has been advising the authority under a $700 million contract. Earlier this year, the Fair Political Practices Commission launched an investigation into financial conflicts of interest in the WSP's top management. But despite these signs of progress for the project, California lawmakers dealt a recent blow: Assembly Democrats launched a plan to divert money from the project’s current Central Valley segment to the higher-demand Southern California Metrolink and the Bay Area's Caltrain. These lines are a part of the original vision for a high-speed network. Still, Brian Kelly, chief executive of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, sees this proposal as a setback: “It is a mistake to simply take money from one region and spend it in another,” he said to the Los Angeles Times.

Report Estimates Quarter-Trillon Dollars in Wildfire Risk Statewide
Serious risk of wildfire threatens nearly 500,000 homes worth a combined $268 billion, according to a recent analysis from real estate marketing firm Zillow. The analysis, based on Zillow’s housing data and risk maps from the U.S. Forest Service, found 477,039 homes categorized at “high" or "very high" risk of wildfire. This finding comes amid growing statewide concern for the impact of future wildfires on communities: more than $20 billion worth of property was destroyed by fires in 2017 and 2018, and more than 350,000 Americans currently live in towns and cities designated “very high fire hazard severity zones” by Cal Fire. According to Zillow’s analysis, the Riverside area has the most homes facing high risks, with a total of 113,520 properties worth $40 billion overall. Properties in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego metro areas also face notably high fire risks.

Deficit-Ridden Adelanto Considers Disincorporation 
Facing a projected $6.3 million fiscal deficit, the City of Adelanto is considering disincorporation – the first disincorporation in San Bernardino County’s history, and the first statewide since the 1970s. The city, which was incorporated in 1971 with the goal of bringing more revenue to the region, may have to disincorporate for the same reason. In 2014, facing a growing financial shortfall, City Manager Jim Hart proposed a 7.95 percent utility users tax – but it was rejected by 63 percent of voters. In 2015, Hart was ousted as city manager. With disincorporation, residents would be governed by the county Board of Supervisors 40 miles away in San Bernardino. To transition from city to county control, a funding mechanism, such as a tax, would need to be devised and adopted to pay for municipal services that would fall to the county. Should 25 percent of Adelanto’s registered voters sign a disincorporation petition this week, it will go to the Local Agency Formation Commission for San Bernardino County for a vote. Final approval will fall to a citizen vote. Maricopa flirted with disincorporation several years ago. (See prior CP&DR coverage.)

Quick Hits & Updates 
Los Angeles's 2016 Measure M transportation tax provides a model for auto-oriented regions looking to change transportation at the ballot box, according to a recent study published by the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank. The paper situates Measure M, a half-cent sales tax increase to finance local transportation, within a larger discussion of transportation finance and politics. The study hails the measure as a success, for its work in upending the transportation status quo and doubling the county’s rail network.

A gondola system may one day transport visitors to Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, according to Stantec, an engineering consulting firm hired to examine the feasibility of aerial transportation. This move responds to heavy traffic around and within the 4,200-acre park. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council authorized the analysis of 29 Griffith Park traffic mitigation measures. Stantec’s feasibility study will examine several alternatives for tramway lines, including stations at notable destinations like the Hollywood sign and Dodger Stadium. It will also study potential effects on the surrounding wildlife and community.

The Santa Barbara City Council approved recent changes to its Coastal Land Use Plan, moving one step closer to finalizing development law for the city’s four-mile coastal zone. The plan, last updated in 1986, protects and balances use of coastal resources along the city’s coast – 65 percent of which is in public ownership. One change to the plan prohibits new private access stairways on the bluffs. Next, the council will finalize its Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan, set to be reviewed in 2020. 

San Francisco moved closer to cutting fees for affordable projects and backyard apartments, after the city’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee unanimously approved the bill introduced by Mayor London Breed. This bill, introduced in February, would cut building-inspection fees for affordable housing developers and those looking to legally create accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for rent in their backyards, garages, or storage spaces. Since Breed introduced the bill, 22 affordable housing projects have begun the permitting process – and would take on about $675,000 in total fees. Similarly, property owners have applied to build 99 ADUs in this time period, which would incur $280,000 in combined fees.

The Placer County Board of Supervisors approved a controversial gondola between the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts in Truckee. According to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, the California Express Gondola would extend an eight-passenger, 33-tower lift over 2.2 miles in a 13-to-16 minute ride, giving skiers and snowboarders access to both resorts without the need for shuttle or car service. The gondola has faced pushback from environmentalists for its proximity to the Granite Chief Wilderness. Before work can begin, plans for the gondola will go to the Forest Service for final review.

Anticipating the arrival of new 5G technology from the wireless industry next year, the San Diego City Council approved aggressive new cell antenna regulations as part of its municipal code updates. The new regulations include special protections for the city’s historic areas and efforts to mitigate visual impacts. The advent of 5G technology will mean the installation of “small cell” antennas placed as close as a block apart on city streets. The regulations mandate concealment of radials and mounting brackets to reduce visual clutter. These mandates defend against new federal law, which requires cities to loosen regulations, speed up approval times and lower fees for 5G technology. (See prior CP&DR coverage.) 

The City of Los Altos was sued for rejecting a proposed 66-foot office and housing building with an accompanying 18-space underground parking garage. The lawsuit, filed by the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, claims that the city has rejected a project in compliance with state law. The site’s property owners pursued a streamlined permit under SB 35, a law that encourages housing development by fast-tracking proposals that meet certain requirements. The city council has claimed that the development does not in fact meet all of the requirements under SB 35 to be granted streamlining.