Menlo Park mayor comes out swinging against SB50, says it will weaken local government

GUEST OPINION

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.

Misguided approach

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.

14 Comments

  1. Well said, Mr Mueller!

    >In response to the state housing crisis, Sen. Scott Weiner..SB50 to increase
    >housing supply along public transit corridors. The affordable housing crisis is
    >of utmost importance …

    Just so the irony is not lost: SB 50 does NOTHING for affordable housing! It does not, cannot mandate the housing–even a portion of it!–created as a result of SB 50 be set aside for affordable housing. Instead, under the guise of “housing crisis”, Mr Wiener and his cohorts are crafting bills that are mere set-ups for feed-troughs for their developer friends. These bills erode local jurisdictions, alterithe character of cities irrevocably and irreparably, and accelerate the conversion of suburbs and cities into never-ending sprawls. Out, out, out with these rascals!

  2. Hello Irony – just want to point out that SB50 does have mandatory “inclusionary” requirements that some of the new housing is set aside as affordable. Furthermore, upzoning existing residential neighborhoods prevents further sprawl, it doesn’t exacerbate it.

    And speaking of Irony, I think it’s extremely ironic that Menlo Park is talking about how local control is the solution to our housing problems. Menlo Park has approved more office space for Facebook employees than there are residents of Menlo Park, in addition to other companies and office projects. Very little housing has been built by Menlo Park to house all of these new employees. The jobs/housing ratio is completely out of whack.

    This has significantly contributed to traffic and housing costs not only in Menlo Park, but the entire nearby region. This is where “local control” has landed us.

    Since Menlo Park isn’t stepping up to address the issues they have created, the state is having to intervene. In my mind, the city of Menlo Park is the poster child for why local control has failed.

    All of that being said, if Menlo Park were to suddenly propose an emergency response to the housing situation and boldly attempt fix the problems they have created, I would be more than happy to oppose SB50 and support the local solution. But it seems Menlo Park and Palo Alto are too busy complaining about SB50 and stalling on new housing, so the state solution is the only reasonable choice at this point.

  3. Housing and transportation aren’t being addressed to my satisfaction. Giving
    the reins to the state is a mistake. Menlo Park is not doing a satisfactory job
    of stopping the huge development projects by Facebook .. and Stanford!

  4. Why is it the that the libs espouse inclusiveness until its in their own backyard? We care for the poor, the needy, those that are less fortunate – only if they are conveniently located on the east side of the 101. Nice!

  5. >This is where “local control” has landed us. …
    >the city of Menlo Park is the poster child for why local control has failed.

    So? You are arguing we abdicate local control and surrender to some in Sacramento to make decisions for us owing to Menlo Park’s failures and mistakes. I find that a cause for very serious concern! If you find that acceptable what’s to stop from going further down that road and asking someone in Russia to make decisions that impact us in the local community?

    Just so there’s no misunderstanding: Menlo Park’s actions leading to the current imbalance in jobs vs housing and how they imposed negative externalities on surrounding cities and the region are serious mistakes.

    That made clear, it by now means we become “surrender monkeys” and abdicate local control to anyone other than those that live in our neighborhoods, are elected by us in local ballots, and so on. Instead it makes more sense to direct our energies and efforts to holding our local representatives accountable.

  6. SB50 is a horrible bill authored by the biggest idiot in Sacramento. I am happy that our Mayor is against it and that Menlo Park will be working with many other communities in the Bay Area and across the state to oppose this bill. Sacramento should not have the power to dictate to a community what it can and can not do in terms of building restrictions. I hope Weiner is not long for Sacramento.

    As for the Facebook buildings, that was the previous city council which was very pro development (they worked with Stanford and Greenheart to get the development approved and in the case of one candidate took a lot of campaign contributions from developers). Not much Menlo Park can do about limiting Stanford growth on Stanford land or any land outside of Menlo.

  7. Scott Wiener last year proposed SB 827 with no affordable units and no restrictions on demolishing apartments to make way for the midrise condos commanded by the big corporations. This time around, Wiener and his benefactors have SOLD his new bill {SB 50) to some ambitious politicians and have installed a little of something for everyone – including the April 24 exclusion of 33 counties from the most onerous provisions of the current bill. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties remain targets. In fact, the con-job concerning building close to transit is now supplemented by another excuse for the towering corporate condos: “job-rich” areas should have more housing. “Job-rich” also referred to in the bill as “jobs-rich” will be as determined by a state agency and will be almost everywhere in Menlo Park and Palo Alto and similar cities. The big corporate employers operating through Wiener are not backing off. While cities and counties have historically been given much control over local land use, the state constitution grants superior (preemptive) power to the state government. Cities and counties need to join in an initiative petition for a state constitutional amendment giving them some power over local land use that the state government cannot ignore. As to SB 50 itself, opponents of a state law in California have 90 days from enactment to circulate and submit a statewide referendum petition. To qualify the question for the ballot, a statewide referendum petition must contain the signatures of at least 5% of the votes last cast for Governor. That is about 650,000 valid signatures. Not hard to get if city and county leaders get together to get it done. But if they dottle, SB 50 will become the law and developers will be buying and leasing land and building 4-8 story condos (amd maybe some high-priced apartments) most anywhere they like in urban and suburban California.

  8. If SB 50 passes, there are tens of thousands of people who can afford to tie it up in the courts for decades.

    Failing that, let’s just raze the Menlo Park train stop. No more transit hub, no more SB 50 tripling our school population.

  9. Good!

    The entire point of this bill is to take power away from failed NIMBY governments like Menlo Park and do what’s needed for the greater good. The sooner these silly ‘cities’ are disolved and merged into a broader bay area-wide planning zone, the better. If you want to live in a small town, move back to Ohio.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly with Mayor Mueller. SB50 won’t solve the housing crisis. It will make it worse by usurping local control with one-size regulation. I manage a company with almost 100 employees who can’t afford to live near where they work. SB 50 doesn’t solve their housing challenges. I fully support the Mayor’s thoughtful and strategic approach to providing local solutions to affordable housing in the Bay Area. I oppose SB 50 as both a resident and as an employer.

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