Searching For Cover

Over the last year, almost all Board of Supervisors agenda items having to do with the County’s dysfunctional affordable housing program and how to deal with the State of California’s edict to build thousands of new houses have been heard while the Board sits in Santa Maria. These items are often placed at the end of the agenda to be heard at the end of a long day. Members of the public wishing to participate and comment must sit through hours of other business before being allowed three minutes to comment. This practice is becoming so common, one wonders if the Board is purposefully searching for cover as it decides important housing and development policy which threatens to transform our community.

The most recent example of this practice took place at the May 22, 2007 Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Maria. Lost at the very end of a long agenda and described in bureaucratise as a “status report on Housing Element EIR,” was an important agenda item which will have profound effects on our community. Personnel from the County’s Planning and Development, Long Range Planning, County Executive and County Counsel departments gave an oral status report on the process of re-zoning land in the unincorporated areas of the county to build thousands of new houses, ostensibly to comply with the much ballyhooed state housing “mandates.” The benign agenda description caught the attention of only two members of the public, both of whom frequently appear before the Board to lobby for more taxpayer-subsidized housing.

The discussion that ensued between the staff presenting the status report and the board members was startling, to say the least. Staff presented the alleged state “mandate” requiring municipalities and unincorporated areas to set aside enough land to build 17,000 new housing units in the five-year period ending in 2008, as “the law” and without recourse. The County’s portion of this housing allotment is approximately 6,700 units to be built at minimal densities of 20 units per acre on 62 acres to be set aside for this purpose in the unincorporated areas, including Montecito. Reluctant though the citizenry may be to have government-mandated taxpayer-subsidized housing projects at these densities in their neighborhoods, they will be forced to accept them through re-zoning approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Time To Challenge The Mandates

These alleged housing “mandates” are in fact not “the law” and may be legally challenged, but you would never know that from watching the videotape of the May 22 Board of Supervisors’ hearing. From the discussion it is apparent that County staff members and our elected representatives know as little about this subject as we do. The problem is it is they who will be making decisions to determine the future of our community for generations to come.

The law referred to is actually the State of California housing element law which amorphously requires all communities to contribute their “fair share of regional housing needs” due to increased population. This is the same State of California that has refused to comply with the federal government’s request to send National Guardsmen to the border to stop the flood of illegal immigrants who are greatly increasing California’s population. Having ignored the law and tolerated wholesale lawlessness, the State now wants all of us to comply to the detriment of our neighborhoods!

The actual numbers of acres required to be set aside every five years for the thousands of new houses the state decides should be built is actually decided by some low-level bureaucrats employed in the State of California’s Housing and Community Development Department.

Most startling of all was the inability of County staff to respond regarding the legal requirements of the State housing laws. When pressed, it became clear that staff did not know if any municipality or county in California had ever sued the State to prevent this forced disregard of sovereignty. They had no idea if anyone had challenged the allotted numbers as being unreasonable given a lack of infra-structure to support the increased housing units, as detrimental to the environment or dangerous to the health, safety and well-being of existing residents. No one even knew whether agricultural or existing illegal second units could be included in the “mandated” numbers.

Those present at the May 22 hearing spoke of challenging the State’s bureaucratic edict only in terms of ignoring it or simply not complying with it. No one seemed to know about nor did they explore the possibility of a pro-active challenge such as by bringing a declaratory relief action. County Counsel contributed nothing helpful to the Board of Supervisors on the subject. In fact, legal procedures do exist to resist an over-bearing state government. It is very troubling that those in charge of our future don’t seem to know about these remedies, what other communities have done, or have the courage to avail themselves of them before allowing the hard fought general plans and zoning laws that protect the beauty and scale of this lovely community to be disregarded.

Over the summer, into the fall, there will be other agenda items coming before the Board of Supervisors that deal with forced re-zoning to set aside many acres for highly dense housing projects. Those who treasure our community and want it protected should be vigilant and present to have their voices heard.