First published in the Dec. 11, 2021, print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank City Council appears likely to give itself a larger role in determining whether housing proposals are eligible for a controversial streamlined process passed by the state legislature.
The panel voted 3-2 Tuesday to approve an amendment to a proposed ordinance establishing the city’s policy for the California Senate Bill 35 review procedure. If the council adopts the revised ordinance when it returns for a final vote — and it was unclear this week how soon that could be — the panel would review staff members’ determinations regarding whether a proposed development even qualifies under SB 35 provisions.
SB 35, enacted in 2017, generally prohibits cities from denying eligible residential project applications unless they conflict with local standards such as density or height restrictions.
Aimed at addressing the state’s housing crisis, the law has proven unpopular in many cities, particularly among homeowners and city leaders who see it as a threat to local decision-making. Ire against the law flared this year when Rancho district residents learned a developer intended to submit an SB 35 application to replace the iconic Pickwick Bowl property with nearly 100 townhome units, 10 of which would be reserved for low-income residents. Burbank’s development department has said that the city’s regulations allow residential units there, though some community members and Councilwoman Sharon Springer have expressed doubts.
Planning officials warned that having to consult the panel about a development early in the process, which the revised ordinance would require, would make meeting state-mandated deadlines for the process much more difficult.
“The prospect of analyzing a project within 30 days,” said Community Development Director Patrick Prescott, “and getting it to the council with a thorough analysis of the site — I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but … it might be impossible.”
City Attorney Joe McDougall was quick to interject, “I would use the word ‘unprecedented.’”
The City Council voted in early November to advance an ordinance giving itself final review authority over SB 35 applications once they are submitted, meaning council members would have eventually examined projects’ eligibility. The revised ordinance still contains that provision, but Springer and Mayor Bob Frutos, who voted for the revision along with Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes, said they wanted the community to understand upfront what makes SB 35 applicable to each development, pointing to the messages they have received from perplexed Rancho residents.
“We owe it to our community to be thorough, because this ordinance will set a precedent for what happens in Burbank [with] development all over the city,” Springer said.
Councilmen Nick Schultz and Konstantine Anthony, who voted against Springer’s motion, have previously said that they believe reviewing applications at the end of the process is sufficient. Talamantes did not discuss his vote during the meeting nor did he respond to a request for comment by the Leader’s deadline.
The revised ordinance may not apply to the four Burbank projects already in the pipeline, McDougall warned. Only two of those projects are listed on the city of Burbank website; a spokesperson did not answer a question from the Leader by its deadline regarding the identity of the other two projects. It is also unclear whether the ordinance would go into effect in time to allow the City Council to have final review over the Pickwick project.
Developers and advocacy groups can sue cities that deny projects they believe are SB 35-eligible, potentially exposing the cities to court-ordered fines and requiring them to approve the projects. Some residents upset by the Pickwick proposal have urged Burbank officials to take a firm stance against both the application and SB 35, saying the law is unfair.
And though the discussion officially concerned the review process, the Pickwick project had a major presence, with participants referring to it multiple times both directly and indirectly. McDougall reminded council members that since the project was not on the meeting agenda, discussing it in detail could constitute a violation of the Brown Act’s regulations on public meetings.
But with the Pickwick project and SB 35 so interrelated, it seemed impossible to escape the specter of the former.
“Regarding the project that shall not be named, that was our first SB 35 project,” Prescott said. “And I think staff was trying to protect the interests of the city, and we were being very cautious, and I apologize if we were not as forthcoming with information [as soon] as the council would prefer.”