First published in the June 25 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
A housing advocacy group has sued the city of Burbank for the City Council’s denial of a project that would have replaced the Pickwick Bowl site with nearly 100 condominium units.
The suit, filed Tuesday, is the latest challenge to the city over the council’s April 18 decision, which alleged the site wasn’t zoned for residential usage.
YIMBY Law, a San Francisco-based group whose name is a reference to the “Yes, in My Backyard” slogan used by some pro-housing organizations, argued that the city denied the project “in bad faith” and in knowing violation of state law.
“The bottom line in this case is that the city of Burbank is no different than any other city in California,” said Sonja Trump, executive director of YIMBY Law, in a statement. “Complaints about increased traffic and concerns over equestrian communities do not constitute an exception from the law. And they certainly don’t trump the importance of one of our most fundamental human needs — access to housing.”
California Senate Bill 35, a controversial law under which Laguna Beach-based developer Matthew Waken submitted the project, allows entities to sue cities they believe have broken it.
SB 35 aims to ease the statewide housing crisis by preventing cities from denying certain housing projects as long as they comply with their preexisting development rules. Because he proposed 10 of the project’s 96 housing units as affordable, and because Burbank — like the vast majority of California cities — did not build enough moderate-income housing, Waken said his project was eligible for the law’s provisions.
However, the City Council thought otherwise.
Waken filed a lawsuit against the city in May, alleging the City Council illegally denied his proposal. The California Department of Housing and Community Development, or HCD, which along with Burbank planning officials repeatedly insisted the Pickwick project was eligible for SB 35, told the city in May that the council had violated the law.
HCD warned it could take enforcement action, including referring the case to the state Attorney General’s Office, if the city did not change course.
The council has adamantly opposed the Pickwick project, backed by many concerned residents in the Rancho neighborhood, where the historic entertainment center has been located for decades.
Neighbors have expressed concern that introducing multi-family housing to the quiet equestrian area would endanger horses and their riders with traffic.
The council and its supporters have also argued that provisions in the city’s code, including the Rancho Master Plan that Burbank incorporated in 1993, doesn’t allow housing on the Pickwick site.
But the developer, HCD and YIMBY Law — as well as a few Burbank residents who support the project — have pointed to other city documents indicating otherwise. HCD has emphasized that state law says one of those documents, Burbank’s general plan, trumps conflicting sections of other provisions.
“There is no legal basis for the Burbank City Council to deny this proposed housing project,” said Rafa Sonnenfeld, YIMBY Law’s director of legal advocacy. “The Pickwick project meets all requirements under SB 35. YIMBY Law is looking forward to winning this case.”
The agenda for the City Council’s closed-session meeting Tuesday evening, during which members discuss legal matters in private, did not include the lawsuit as a topic.
City Attorney Joseph McDougall did not respond to a request for comment this week or provide information regarding the city’s response to HCD’s letter, which the department said was due Friday.
Burbank officials have said they would respond to the letter by the deadline, and the City Council previously voted to defend the city against the developer’s lawsuit.
If Burbank loses the lawsuits it’s facing, by both YIMBY and Waken, it could face hefty fines for the City Council’s denial of the Pickwick project, a possibility some members raised months ago shortly before turning down the proposal.
City Council members have emphasized that they support housing development, pointing to projects such as an 862-unit apartment complex in the works on the former Fry’s Electronics site and their commitment to building 12,000 housing units between 2019 and 2035.
Last year, the city even counted the Pickwick project toward the housing development goal it submits periodically to the state, though a revision following the project’s denial eliminated it from the list.