Mountain lions and housing policy aren't often uttered in the same sentence, but that was the case last week in Woodside.
On Jan. 25, the town put an indefinite hold on all housing projects under Senate Bill 9, California's new split-lot law, in Woodside, according to Town Manager Kevin Bryant. The state legislation took effect last month and allows homeowners to split single-family lots and construct up to four residential units.
Town officials found a clause in the law that prohibits development in areas identified as habitats for protected species. Mountain lions are a protected species because they are a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act and Woodside, in "its entirety" is a mountain lion habitat, according to a Jan. 27 memo from Town Planning Director Jackie Young. The Fish and Game Commission planned to release a decision on the animals' status in November, but the agency has yet to make that determination.
On Jan. 11, the Town Council passed an ordinance that limits units allowed under SB 9 unit to 800 square feet. It also prohibited basements under SB 9 and excluded development in areas at high risk of wildfires.
There were no housing applications submitted to the town under SB 9 before projects applications were halted, according to Bryant.
When asked if critics would argue invoking the clause is a ploy to avoid having to build more housing, Mayor Dick Brown said that it's "not the Woodside way" to value housing over the preserving the environment.
"We love animals," he said. "Every house that's built is one more acre taken away from (mountain lions') habitat. Where are they going to go? Pretty soon we'll have nothing but asphalt and no animals or birds."
Brown also noted that during last week's meeting, the council created a committee to look into alternative housing approaches besides SB 9.
"We're very interested in creating more housing alternatives; we're not trying to shut anything down," he said. "We just don't want to have somebody in Sacramento saying we have to put a multistory high-rise in a rural community."
Some Woodside officials have vocally opposed state housing mandates. In 2020, the Town Council voted 4-3 to adopt a resolution stating the town felt strongly that state housing legislation deprives towns of their abilities to meet the needs of their communities. Then-mayor Brian Dombkowski, and then-mayor pro tem Brown, John Carvell and Chris Shaw voted for the resolution.
Council members Ned Fluet, Jenn Wall and Sean Scott voted against it. Scott supported the resolution, but said he wanted to amend it slightly to talk about housing fitting into the town's broader strategy to maintain local control.
The town is also in the midst of updating its housing element, a mandatory statewide process to accommodate housing growth, and is being asked to zone for a significant number of units that must be designated for development. The housing element has prompted pushback from some residents and town officials, who object to changes to the "rural character" of their towns and fear that building more homes could increase wildfire risk in a region that is already at a heightened risk for fires.
Woodside is tasked with zoning for 328 units between 2023 and 2031 under the state's Regional Housing Needs Allocation, up from 62 during the previous cycle.
Council members asked staff last week to look into hiring a consultant to study mountain lion habitats in town, while the town's Planning Commission raised similar concerns in January prior to the council's discussion last week.
Updates will be posted to the town website as the review of the petition to put mountain lions on the endangered species list progresses, according to the memo.
Listen to audio of the council meeting here.