Approval pending enactment of Senate bill, EIR evaluation
By Sondra Murphy
Traffic, growth control, affordable housing, water supply and sustainability.
Look through any OVN archive from its nearly 120-year history and one will find these issues passionately addressed.
The topics are revisited in each of the city of Ojai’s efforts to finalize a Housing Element Plan — a required plan to accommodate new housing to be certified by the state based on the Regional Housing Needs Assessment mandated by state housing law as part of the periodic process of updating local housing elements.
The RHNA quantifies the need for housing within each jurisdiction during specified planning periods. In May 2008, City Council members said they were not ready to adopt a plan to accommodate 427 new housing units required by the state. In December 2008, the council determined it could not support any of the three options presented to accommodate a state mandate that conflicts with the city’s growth management plan.
In March 2009, the council voted to submit to the state a new Housing Element plan that would eventually add 427 legal dwellings in Ojai, using as a cornerstone an amnesty program that would encourage owners of about 300 illegal dwellings to upgrade them to legal standards. A June 2010 deadline for compliance and the beginning of implementation of a housing plan is set by the state.
The state responded positively to the amnesty proposal and, in July, the council directed staff to prepare a draft Environmental Impact Report complete with community comments, of which 16 were received. But when city consultant Tom Figg, brought the update to the council earlier this month, the process backpedaled.
The objections had not changed. While the council supported affordable housing as a concept, it was still skeptical about Ojai’s ability to accommodate more than 400 units.
“The council’s heart is in the right place. We want to build affordable housing,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Carol Smith, who added that she had faith in the amnesty program. “I want to spend money on doing programs to build affordable housing … I don’t want to spend another dime of taxpayers’ money on items that are not housing our very poor residents.” Smith said the council should stop paying consultants and move forward with the Housing Element plan.
But Councilwomen Sue Horgan and Betsy Clapp were not sold. “I feel we are being dictated to by the state,” Clapp said.
“This still doesn’t make sense to me,” said Horgan. “We’ve got environmental concerns bumping up against this housing mandate … Developers don’t have the money to develop anything. We have all these competing interests.”
Horgan brought up Senate Bill 375 and MS-4 as examples of these conflicts.
SB 375 strives to control greenhouse gas emissions by curbing sprawl. It provides emissions-reducing goals for which regions can plan, integrates disjointed planning activities, and provides incentives for local governments and developers to follow new “conscientiously planned” growth patterns, such as placing housing developments near transit hubs and jobs.
MS-4 refers to storm water discharge requirements. The city of Ojai is co-permittee under the Ventura County Storm Control Board and bound by the “requirements to implement pollution reduction and control measures for surface water discharged attributable to new development through low impact development and best management practices.” In addition to incorporating MS-4 requirements into their environmental review processes, cities must include water quality management considerations and policies in their general plans whenever amendments may impact land use, housing conservation or open space elements.
Also of concern to many of the public speakers, as well as the council, were the water reports cited in the DEIR, which are dated anywhere between 1959 and 2005 and include data from the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency, as well as Golden State Water Company and Casitas Municipal Water District. Jim Ruch, OBGMA board member, reminded the council that the agency is in the midst of a water study that could impact the Housing Element plan. “I strongly recommend you recognize that we do, indeed, have a resource restraint,” said Ruch.
“We have another water study under way that’s going to be very extensive and is going to be critical for us,” said Clapp. “I don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable waiting for that.”
Horgan agreed. “This is bad legislation that is being foisted upon us,” she said. “I’d like to look for some of the specific things we can do now, but I’m not able to support this Housing Element right now.” Discussion touched on the RHNA-mandated number of units Ojai would be required to create.
“You asked what is the magic number. The answer is, whatever you want it to be. One way you can do it is to rely on existing units. You can even require occupancy restrictions,” said Figg. “There are ways to get to the numbers you want, so if you want to do a senior project, you can. I just recommend that you decide on something, whatever it may be.”
“The history of the RHNA numbers is the county said, ‘If you do not accept these numbers, then we will impose higher numbers on you,’” said Smith.
Clapp read from Biggs’ memo, page 3-161, stating that, “the city could legitimately find that the significant and unavoidable environmental impacts that would result from adoption of the Housing Element as identified in the DEIR violated the Congestion Management Program of CEQ and are to great that they pose a significant health, safety and general welfare risk to the community that cannot be overcome.”
“Help me with that,” Clapp then said. “It sounds to me that we can legitimately lower our numbers.”
“This difference, of course, is while that is true in that context, there are other considerations involved,” said Julie Biggs, Housing Element legal counsel to the city. “The reason this exists is because of your own city standards. In other words, you’ve created your own health and safety issue. It’s a trade-off in all of these things.”
Biggs then pointed to the next paragraph that said the DEIR has found water availability is not a significant issue. Clapp argued that the DEIR does not say that at all.
“All of this is very speculative,” said Smith. “To end this, either we resubmit to HCD without changes and say, ‘What do you think of this’ or we self-certify. Does anyone see any other choices?”
“We were told this is an urgent matter. I’m not there,” Horgan said. “One thing I don’t know how to get around is traffic impact. If we add one traffic trip to Highway 33, we can’t do it.”
“The rules are changing all the time, even as we speak, because of the recession,” said Mayor Steve Olsen. “If we do nothing, it might change again. We may never be able to reconcile the environmental impacts and housing impacts. They don’t go together.”
After spending nearly two hours on the agenda item, no progress was made. “Tonight’s action is conceptual approval of the DEIR,” said Olsen. “I’m not hearing that.”
“You don’t have a consensus on the element itself that underlies it,” Biggs observed. “What you submitted to HCD, that is what the draft EIR is predicated on. So what you submitted you are saying you are not comfortable with.”
Council members further discussed if they could modify a plan for submission before Horgan moved to table the decision, “Until such time as the information from OBGMA and Golden State is available.” The motion passed 3-1, with Smith casting the dissenting vote.