First published in the Nov. 6 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank City Council appears poised to give itself final review authority over housing applications that, through state law, must be approved if they meet city standards.
Council members voted, 4-1, on Tuesday to introduce an ordinance that would give itself final review authority over residential project applications submitted under Senate Bill 35 provisions. The California law, enacted in 2017, allows multifamily housing developments to pursue a review process that effectively bars cities from denying the project unless it conflicts with existing municipal regulations.
If the City Council adopts the local ordinance at its Nov. 16 meeting — when it is scheduled to hold a second vote — its authority over SB 35 developments will still be relatively limited. Its decisions would need to be based on whether the project meets preexisting regulations such as density limits, setback lines and height limits.
The ordinance would likely allow the council to review a proposed project that would replace the historic Pickwick Bowl property with 98 townhome units. State law provides deadlines for each stage of the application process, but it will likely be months before the project is ready for final approval.
The city’s planning department, which handles most of the application process, previously recommended itself for the role, though if the council proceeds with the ordinance, staff members will continue to provide the panel with relevant information.
“The buck stops here with us elected officials,” Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes said. “That’s what we get elected to do — to make the tough calls. … Sometimes the tough calls are not the popular ones.”
SB 35 only affects cities that have not met state-assigned housing development goals. However, most California cities have missed their marks.
Members of the Rancho neighborhood, which includes the Pickwick site, have pushed the council to curb the project. City staff members have said that the developer is still in the early permitting stages.
“This is too big for our little world,” Rancho resident and realtor Jay Geisenheimer told the council during public comment.
Council members could not address the Pickwick project specifically, as it was not on the meeting agenda, though the prospect of having to facilitate an unpopular development seemed to loom over some moments of the meeting. YIMBY Law, a California group, argued that since council members are elected they cannot be impartial when it comes to reviewing SB 35 applications. YIMBY stands for “Yes, in my backyard,” an acronym sometimes used by supporters of housing development.
“Burbank will suffer a pointless and embarrassing lawsuit from an organization like ours when you undoubtedly violate the Housing Accountability Act,” said Rafa Sonnenfeld, a paralegal with the group.
Council members, however, expressed certainty that they could set aside their personal opinions and abide by state requirements. They added that it would be beneficial to hold a public discussion on each project.
SITE ELIGIBILITY DRAWS DEBATE
While the council agreed that setting itself as the deciding body for SB 35 applications is the right move, Councilwoman Sharon Springer provided the sole vote against the ordinance’s introduction.
Springer, who has been a vocal critic of SB 35, argued for an alternative motion that would advance the ordinance and allow the Council to decide whether projects are even eligible for the bill’s provisions. Doing so would effectively have given the council the ability to scrutinize a project at the beginning of the application process.
The councilwoman said the policy would allow the City Council to better understand what makes an application eligible for SB 35.
“This is all new,” Springer said. “We have two projects that are SB 35 and I feel like we’re acting out of fear, and I feel like we owe it to our residents to get back to site eligibility — that’s a part of the policy.”
Springer’s motion failed on a 2-3 vote, with Mayor Bob Frutos supporting. A council majority said they believe that having an eventual oversight opportunity is sufficient.
Community Development Department officials warned that being required to consult the council on the site eligibility requirement would slow the process, potentially making it difficult for the city to make its findings within the state-mandated deadlines.
Some disagreement has arisen over whether SB 35 can be applied to the Pickwick development. City officials have told the developer that the project qualifies, but state Sen. Anthony Portantino argued in a letter to municipal officials that Burbank’s guiding land use document does not allow residential units on the project site.
Patrick Prescott, CDD director, pointed out in a response to Portantino that the document does allow residential development there with the city’s permission, adding that staff members believe SB 35 negates the need for city permission.