Burbank Broke Law in Pickwick Decision, State Claims

First published in the June 4 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

The state department overseeing California’s housing policies recently told Burbank its City Council violated the law when it denied a development project involving Pickwick Bowl and Gardens.

The five-page public letter, issued by the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s division of housing policy development on May 24, requires a response from the city by June 24.

HCD said that unless Burbank officials repeal the City Council’s denial of the housing project, they could face enforcement action, including seeing the case referred to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Simone McFarland, an assistant director of community development for the city and its public information officer, said the city would respond to the letter by the deadline. McFarland did not say what the city’s response would be.

Burbank is already facing a lawsuit from the developer of the Pickwick project, which would have replaced the longtime entertainment center with 96 condominium units, 10 of which he would have reserved for low-income households.

Laguna Beach developer Matthew Waken argued that because he submitted the proposal under California Senate Bill 35, which requires most cities to approve housing projects that meet local development requirements, the council could not legally deny the project.

However, the City Council, which has faced intense pressure from residents in the Pickwick’s Rancho neighborhood to deny the proposal, unanimously agreed that the project wasn’t eligible for SB 35 on April 18.

Despite the insistence of both HCD and Burbank development officials, the council members alleged that the city zoning code doesn’t allow housing at the Pickwick site.

The council and other critics of the proposal, which, during at least one point, included state Sen. Anthony Portantino, pointed out that Burbank’s municipal code indicates that the Pickwick site is in a zone that prohibits residential development. Rancho residents have also argued that the addition of a multi-family residential building would introduce a dangerous amount of traffic to the equestrian neighborhood, which has for decades successfully fought major development projects.

But Burbank’s Community Development Department, the developer, housing advocacy group YIMBY Law and HCD have retorted that the city’s general plan — its guiding housing document — says housing can be built at the site.

State law gives prevalence to the general plan over municipal codes when the two conflict. HCD also noted in its letter that Burbank’s housing element, a list of potential residential sites the city must submit to HCD every several years, includes the Pickwick site.

“If the city had not intended that this site be used for housing,” David Zisser, HCD’s assistant deputy director of local government relations and accountability, argued in the letter, “it would not have included the site in the housing element site’s inventory.”

Waken’s lawsuit against the city remains in its early stages. The City Council unanimously voted to have the City Attorney’s Office defend Burbank against the suit.