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City of St. Helena

A slew of state laws that took effect Jan. 1 will significantly affect how St. Helena evaluates proposed housing projects.

Laws with names like the “Housing Crisis Act of 2019” are intended to streamline the approval process, limit the ability of local jurisdictions to hinder housing projects, and promote the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The most consequential bill is SB 330, which “makes things much less discretionary at the local level,” Assistant City Attorney Ethan Walsh told the City Council and Planning Commission during a joint meeting on Tuesday.

SB 330 creates a new pre-application review process, which is essentially a checklist ensuring that the project complies with the General Plan, zoning ordinance and other regulations. It also freezes the development standards that are in effect when the pre-application is submitted, preventing jurisdictions from changing the rules midstream.

SB 330 allows no more than five hearings on a housing project that complies with the General Plan and zoning standards. It also requires projects to be evaluated based on objective standards, so the city can no longer deny new housing projects for subjective reasons – for example, being out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

Walsh said he doesn’t believe the prohibition on subjective standards applies to routine teardown/rebuild projects that merely reconfigure existing housing units. However, he said there’s enough ambiguity in the new legislation that some of the details will probably be clarified in court.

SB 330 also prohibits “urbanized areas” (which includes St. Helena) from downzoning properties and thus reducing the number of allowable units. The city may only downzone if it simultaneously upzones a separate area to offset the number of potential units lost by the downzoning.

“It has to be a like-for-like exchange so that you have no net loss” in the number of allowable units, Walsh said.

The new laws also remove many restrictions on ADUs, allowing for a home, an ADU and a smaller junior ADU on most residential lots, with a maximum setback of four feet.

ADUs now require only a building permit from city staff, not a public hearing in front of the Planning Commission.

The state considers ADUs a powerful tool to increase densities and create low-cost infill housing, but ADUs are not the same as regulated affordable housing units that are subject to rent limits and income requirements.

One survey conducted by the city of St. Helena in the 2010s revealed that only four of the 13 responding ADU owners actually rented out their ADUs. The rest reserved them for family members or guests.

Another new law, AB 1763, expands the availability of density bonuses for 100% affordable housing projects.

Affordable projects that set aside at least 80% of their units for low-income residents are now eligible for a density bonus of up to 80% more than the maximum allowable density.

Housing sites that qualify for a density bonus and are also within a half-mile of a major transit stop are not subject to any density limit at all, although they still have to comply with other local development standards, such as limits on the number of floors.

Walsh’s presentation is available at cityofsthelena.org, under the agenda for the Jan. 21 City Council/Planning Commission meeting.

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You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.