BY RAY MUELLER
On May 6, the Menlo Park City Council will join the Palo Alto City Council for a special joint session to study and discuss the impacts of California Senate Bill 50, SB50. The joint City Council Study Session between the two cities and across county lines is a first. However, the topic of SB50 is serious enough that such a step is reasonable.
In response to the state housing crisis, Sen. Scott Weiner from San Francisco crafted SB50 to increase housing supply along public transit corridors. The affordable housing crisis is of utmost importance and certainly one that many jurisdictions in California, including Menlo Park, have been working for years to address. With that in mind, SB50 might initially seem innocuous. However, the one-size-fits-all, oversimplified approach SB50 takes is misguided both due to its unintended and unfunded consequences that would wreak havoc to our city services. It would also set a precedent of centralizing power in the state and weakening local representative government.
As noted by a recent UC-Berkeley study, in Menlo Park SB50 would pre-empt portions of our local zoning ordinances in areas zoned for housing within a half mile of the Menlo Park train station and instead allow for buildings to be constructed 45 feet tall, with no limit on density, and waiving any requirement for parking to be provided. If the building were located within a quarter mile from the Menlo Park train station, the pre-emption would allow for five-story buildings, with no limit on density, again waiving any parking requirement.
To give one an idea of what this would mean in Menlo Park, if you draw a half-mile radius from the train station, located between Oak Grove and Ravenswood avenues, that radius includes neighborhoods along Oak Grove all the way to Rebecca Lane; past Marcussen Drive along Ravenswood Avenue, extending into Linfield Oaks all the way to portions of Waverly Street and Sherwood Way; extending over portions of College Avenue and Middle Avenue; covering portions of University Avenue, Roble Drive, Oak Lane, Mills Street, Rose Street, and Valparaiso Avenue; covering San Antonio Street and Garwood Way; extending to Encinal Avenue, Felton Drive, Laurel Street, Moulton Drive, and portions of Glenwood Avenue. Notably the radius encompasses all the Church of the Nativity campus and school, all of Nealon Park, all of Fremont Park, all of Burgess Park, and portions of the the Menlo School campus with the radius coming within 500 feet of Encinal school and 700 feet of St. Raymond’s campus and school.
One only needs to traverse these streets and visualize the density SB50 would allow, with no required parking, to understand how SB50 would change the character of our city’s treasured residential neighborhoods as well as those residential neighborhoods located nearby.
Supreme Court precedent
In many ways SB50 is the history of zoning and land-use regulation come full circle and turned on its head. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark decision Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., for the first time validated a local jurisdiction’s comprehensive land-use zoning controls. The case involved a village in Ohio, Euclid, developing local zoning ordinances in an attempt to prevent industrial Cleveland from growing into and subsuming Euclid and changing the character of the village. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld Euclid’s zoning ordinance, finding it was not an unreasonable extension of the village’s police power and did not have the character of arbitrariness, and thus was not unconstitutional. How ironic is it then, that a legislator from a big city in California drafted SB50 to use state pre-emption to forcefully impose zoning rules to push character changing density into the suburbs.
The Euclid case was the beginning of nearly a century of land-use law in the U.S. and California that was premised on the foundation that local jurisdictions were vested with the power to regulate land use within their boundaries. Unsurprisingly, over that same time period, an evolving public policy framework developed around the system of local control in land-use regulation, meant to deliver services to residents.
Impact on local governments
And this is perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses with SB50. It completely ignores the public policy framework and complexity of the ecosystem meant to deliver services to residents that built up around local jurisdiction zoning control. SB50 does not address in any fashion the capital improvements to the city transportation infrastructure, school district infrastructure or special district infrastructure that would be required as a result of the physical impact of SB50. One might describe that as an unfunded mandate, but I wouldn’t. Even an unfunded mandate would leave a city some discretion. SB50 is an unfunded state directed restructuring of the city landscape, population, and character, leaving the city no discretion nor funding to ease its impact.
But on a basic level, there is something more troubling to me in SB50. While state mandates have existed before, SB50 is an oversimplified radical transfer of power to the state from local representative government.
For close to a century in California, when a family picked a jurisdiction in which to make the biggest financial investment in their lives, their home, it was premised on the belief they did so in a framework of property rights vested in an expectation they would participate in a locally elected representative government that controlled the land-use destiny of that jurisdiction: from its downtown, to its parks and open space, to its schools and fire stations, to the character of the street of the home that family purchased and children played on. Today the power of local representative government is so espoused by state law, it at times, as in Menlo Park, requires districting in local government. SB50 is the weakening of local representative government, premised on the idea a central government in the state capital knows better. It doesn’t.
The state would do far better to work with local jurisdictions and help address the barriers we face in responding to the affordable housing crisis. The legislature should empower local policy makers and provide focused and enabling solutions to address concerns over the sustainability of city services and the funding of additional capital infrastructure. SB50 is a misguided precedent-setting centralization of power in the state that weakens the foundation of local representative government and devalues the voices of its electorate.
Ray Mueller is the mayor of Menlo Park and an attorney. He was elected to City Council in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.