Some Atherton residents are upset that officials aren't doing more to fight the wealthy town's increased state housing obligations. During a boisterous community meeting last week to discuss strategies for fulfilling the mandate, one resident even suggested the town evade it completely and pay monthly fines of up to $100,000.
But officials, like Mayor Rick DeGolia, explained at the April 26 meeting that the town needs to satisfy its 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers. Atherton, which had an average home price of $7.9 million in March, according to Zillow, is required by the state to plan for the development of 348 new housing units compared to just 93 during the 2014-22 cycle.
"If we don't satisfy it the consequences are dire, penalties that are just stupid that we can't begin to bear," he explained to residents last week in Jennings Pavilion at Holbrook-Palmer Park. "This is a very sensitive issue to people. Nobody who lives in single-family communities wants to see them destroyed."
Local governments that fail to comply with state laws regarding their respective housing element, or fail to implement programs identified in the housing element, could face significant exposure to liability, according to the state. Courts may remove the local government's land use and planning authority and they could be subject to judgments and fines of up to $100,000 per month.
The state established a Housing Accountability and Enforcement Unit in 2021 to ensure all local jurisdictions meet their fair share of the state's housing needs at all income levels. Additionally, local governments could be subject to lawsuits by the state, interest groups, property owners and developers.
"How can we kind of fight this thing?" asked one resident during the meeting, noting that she would prefer to pay the state fines and not complete the housing element. It would be about $1.2 million a year if the town was charged $100,000 per month, she noted. The town didn't require residents to state their names during public comment, so people didn't identify themselves.
In early April, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the state has rejected 97% of Southern California cities' housing elements. Southern California has earlier RHNA deadlines than Northern California.
DeGolia reiterated this week that the town won't fight its RHNA numbers, despite the increased numbers it is facing. He said he was surprised how aggressive a couple of people at the meeting were who wanted the town to totally oppose the RHNA numbers.
The process to plan for new housing has been more difficult than anticipated and it's an emotional issue, DeGolia said.
"Woodside's experience where they tried to fight (Senate Bill) SB 9 with the mountain lion law; it received a severe reaction," he said. "That kind of showed us the last thing you want is to be completely out of line with this issue and we're not going to be."
SB 9, which took effect this year, requires jurisdictions to permit the splitting of single family lots into two parcels and the construction of up to two primary dwelling units on each parcel.
Strategies for building more housing
The Atherton City Council held study sessions to consider possible strategies for meeting the town's RHNA assignment last April, and in January and February 2022, according to a town newsletter.
Town officials came up with the following strategies include, according to the newsletter:
• Building accessory dwelling units (ADUs): Build ADUs of up to 1,200 square feet and junior ADUs of up to 500 square feet per single family property. The town estimates approximately 35 new ADU/JADU units will be developed each year during the next housing element cycle, for a total of 280 new units.
• Allow multifamily housing at schools, adjacent to schools and at the Cal Water Bear Gulch Reservoir Site Public: Private schools in Atherton located within the Public Facilities and Schools zone currently allows teacher housing with a conditional use permit. The town could amend the zone to allow multifamily housing at the schools by right. The town could also consider allowing the schools to acquire and construct multifamily housing on properties adjacent to the school sites. There are currently caretaker housing units for employees of Cal Water at the Bear Gulch Reservoir site. The town could allow additional housing units at this site for Cal Water employees to assist with its emergency preparedness and distant employee commutes. (DeGolia noted that the town previously authorized schools to build housing and none of them have done so, so the state might not be very open to this as a solution.) Menlo School has expressed interest in providing housing to its staff, he said.
• Townhouse overlay zones: A new overlay zone could allow up to 10-20 dwelling units per acre on select parcels. Council members reviewed several maps with optional areas to apply the zone and provided direction to limit the overlay to the following areas: 23 Oakwood at 20 units per acre; properties facing Marsh Road at 10 units per acre; properties facing Bay Road at 10 units per acre. With an overlay zone, single family homes would remain a permitted use and property owners would have the option to construct multifamily housing units up to the permitted density. The town considered homes closer to El Camino Real, but most were on lots too small to split, DeGolia noted.
• SB 9: Based on recent interest from property owners, the town estimates a total of 80 new housing units from SB 9 projects over the next 8 years.
At the town's housing element community meeting, residents were vocal in their disdain for the increased RHNA numbers.
Others came with specific criticism of how Atherton's planning department has decided to add housing, specifically the proposal to add an overlay for townhouses in the Lindenwood neighborhood.
One Lindenwood resident said the state's housing requirements are "absolutely detestable."
"I would say shame on you and I hope you reconsider," the resident said in regard to the decisions that affect his neighborhood. "Because Lindenwood is being carved out as the one neighborhood that will bear all of the brunt of this 10 lots split tomfoolery. … Can you imagine owning a home, a nice home, that you've paid a lot of money for on one of those streets? The developer comes and knocks on your door and says 'gee, I want to let you know that I bought the house next door. I'm going to tear it down and I'm going to build 10 townhomes.' ... I heard the gobbledygook that it's on the periphery of Atherton."
DeGolia didn't anticipate the town would likely need to authorize townhouses to get a plan the state might approve.
"It's a big issue for Atherton," he said. "There is going to be some requirement that we provide multifamily opportunities — townhouses. That's never been done before (in Atherton)."
The council expects to send its draft housing element to the state in June, said DeGolia. Residents will have 30 days to comment on the town's draft element before it's sent to the state. The housing element must be certified by the state in January 2023.
With so many other cities seeing their plans rejected, DeGolia expects as much for Atherton. The town would then work with the state to refine the plan.
For more information on the town's housing element planning, go here.