First published in the April 9 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank City Council voted this week to adopt an ordinance implementing a state law that allows lot splits and duplexes in single-family neighborhoods.
California Senate Bill 9, which passed the state Legislature last year, requires cities to approve applications for such projects as long as they comply with objective development standards, such as minimum unit sizes and setback requirements.
The council’s unanimous vote to pass a temporary ordinance — which went into effect immediately — on Tuesday incorporated the core provisions of the law, while giving officials time to develop long-term regulations.
The urgency ordinance will remain in effect until mid-May unless the council extends it.
While the city has not yet received any applications under SB 9’s provisions, officials said the interim policy will provide crucial guidelines for anyone pursuing a project. In the absence of restrictions, they added, a lot with one housing unit could have up to eight — four primary housing units plus four accessory-dwelling units, or ADUs.
“[City staff members] have brought forth a proposal to exercise all the control that SB 9 has given cities,” City Attorney Joe McDougall told the council. “This urgency ordinance process allows you to then study the permanent standards that would be put in place.”
Under the ordinance, property owners can build up to two primary dwelling units on a single-family zoned lot. Additionally, the developer must comply with the underlying zone requirements, including setbacks, floor-area ratio and height.
Lot splits can only occur if the lot is at least 2,400 feet, and only two units — including ADUs — can be on each new parcel.
The subdividing lot line cannot be curved or angled, and the owner must sign an affidavit pledging he or she will live on one of the lots for at least three years following the approval of the split.
UTILITY IMPACT, AFFORDABILITY AMONG CONCERNS
City officials expressed concern that an unmitigated implementation of SB 9 could result in an unforeseen burden on local utilities.
Bobola Akerson, a senior electric engineer with Burbank Water and Power, told the City Council that having eight units per lot would overcrowd power poles, which would pose a safety risk to work crews.
She added that the city’s power distribution system could need newer infrastructure to handle the increased demand.
“The impact is … a decrease in that reliability if we don’t upgrade our facilities to match the new loads coming in,” Akerson said.
Public Works Director Ken Berkman also noted that while his department planned for a rise in ADU-related demands on the sewer system, SB 9 projects could present an “exponential” increase.
It is unclear how many property owners will invoke SB 9’s provisions. Planning officials said they receive two to three inquiries a week regarding the application process.
The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, whose policy director wrote positively of SB 9, estimated last year that the vast majority of Burbank’s single-family parcels would be eligible for its allowances, but that the law would make new units financially feasible for just a small fraction of lots.
Councilman Bob Frutos asked city staff members to look into the possibility of including an affordability requirement for new units, noting that SB 9 itself doesn’t include one. Opponents of the law have often expressed concern that developers could overcrowd neighborhoods with high-rent duplexes.
“It just seems that without [the affordability requirement], when our properties are $1 million, … how does this really help out the people that this law went into effect [for]?” he asked.
Deputy City Planner Scott Plambaeck said that adding that requirement is possible, but could need a study showing it wouldn’t discourage housing production.
COUNCIL MEMBERS SIGNAL FRUSTRATION
Frutos and Councilwoman Sharon Springer also encouraged planning officials to research ways to protect the city’s equestrian neighborhood, such as by requiring an especially large lot in order for a split to occur.
“What concerns me is that a lot can happen in a short amount of time,” Springer said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone; once the Rancho [neighborhood] is gone, there’s no bringing it back.”
Springer also requested that city staff members bring back an agenda item examining the feasibility of Burbank joining a lawsuit some South Bay cities have filed against SB 9.
Early this year, Springer also led a push to have the city draft a letter in support of a potential California constitutional amendment that would allow municipalities to override state land-use laws — especially SB 9.
The campaign later announced it would delay its efforts until the 2024 ballot.
Last month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta rebuked the city of Pasadena for its attempt to exempt neighborhoods in “landmark districts” from SB 9, arguing that the city’s definition was overly broad and pressuring officials to repeal the provision.
However, Frutos seemed to echo the frustration of many city representatives who have opposed SB 9, alleging it takes away local control from leaders who best know where new housing should develop.
“I think SB 9 stinks,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair that we go through this drought, we talk about the electrical infrastructure [and] we, the residents of Burbank, are going to have to pay for additional infrastructure.”