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Mayoral candidate T. Keith Gurnee wants to push back on state housing laws; SLO city leaders say that will be hard, if not impossible 

One of T. Keith Gurnee's most consistent messages as a candidate for San Luis Obispo mayor is also something of a war cry: A recent slew of California housing laws is trampling SLO's ability to control development, Gurnee says, and he will lead the charge to fight back.

click to enlarge DEVELOPMENT DEBATE Mayoral candidate T. Keith Gurnee wants SLO to fight state laws that pressure local communities to build housing, a debate that surfaced with recent projects like this one on Chorro Street. But current city leaders say his stances are impractical. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DEVELOPMENT DEBATE Mayoral candidate T. Keith Gurnee wants SLO to fight state laws that pressure local communities to build housing, a debate that surfaced with recent projects like this one on Chorro Street. But current city leaders say his stances are impractical.

"The biggest issue we face is the state's recent intrusion into local control," Gurnee wrote in a commentary published in New Times on Oct. 11. "Rather than meekly surrendering to this new law as our current council has done, we need to join with other cities to fight back ... and take back our rights to self-determination through a statewide initiative."

It's true that the state Legislature has clamped down on municipalities' reign over housing projects. To address an affordability crisis, new laws (and bolstered old laws) are aimed at incentivizing housing production and making it harder for cities to slow or turn down projects that are largely compliant with local zoning.

That turf war between the state and its cities has come into sharp focus in SLO as the community barrels into a contentious municipal election on Nov. 6. New apartment projects in neighborhoods like the Anholm near Foothill Boulevard have upset residents because, due to those housing laws, they earned exemptions from city codes—like relaxed parking requirements and increased building height, density, and site coverage—in exchange for more units (both market rate and affordable).

Gurnee's not alone in his distaste for this dynamic. City Councilmember Andy Pease told New Times she's "frustrated" by it. Mayor Heidi Harmon, Gurnee's opponent, said it's something that's tied the city's hands. Councilmember Carlyn Christianson, who's also up for re-election, pointed out that SLO is actively lobbying Sacramento for more local control through the League of California Cities organization.

But as far as Gurnee's campaign promises to pursue a statewide ballot measure to overturn state law, to find ways on the council to deny unfavorable projects, and to revisit city general plan policies—they've been met with skepticism, and outright rebuking, from the current leadership.

"There are legitimate discussions to have around housing, but what he's saying isn't even remotely feasible," Christianson, a veteran on local government bodies, said. "It's just a political statement. I understand the emotional reaction that people have to change and the kinds of pressures we're feeling—it's just a stressful time. But I think Mr. Gurnee is smart enough to know better, and I'm disappointed."

The League of California Cities, which goes to bat for cities' interests, doesn't see a ballot initiative as a practical solution to the issue, either. Merely qualifying one would require at least $3 million in signature-gathering—plus another $10 million to $30 million to run a credible campaign, according to David Mullinax, League of Cities' regional public affairs manager.

"To do a statewide initiative is insanely difficult," Mullinax said. "The odds of a housing measure to come together like that are long, at best."

On this pursuit, Gurnee has taken interest in the nonprofit Livable California, an organization formed out of the Bay Area whose mission is to "empower communities to take action to support local community planning ... free from undue influence of big business and Sacramento."

"I would want to join in with those that are trying to resist," Gurnee told New Times, acknowledging that there'd be "no quick solution" to his biggest campaign gripe.

Mullinax said the League of Cities' current approach in Sacramento is also an uphill climb. With a Democratically controlled Legislature and the potential election of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as governor, housing will likely continue to be a top policy priority.

"There are a lot of cities that are mad about it," Mullinax said. "There's going to be some really big battles over the next few years."

While the battle wages in Sacramento over local control, Gurnee has also promised to take a different tack on the City Council when development comes forward for review. State law says that cities cannot deny housing that's in line with zoning without providing "a preponderance of evidence" showing that the community's health and safety is at risk.

"Cities need to work harder on documenting when those threats exist," Gurnee said.

But current city leaders warn that rejecting projects without a legal leg to stand on is just inviting litigation. Case law is showing that courts are interpreting health and safety risks strictly, according to SLO officials. A housing development that harms neighborhood character, or is incompatible with a neighborhood, doesn't reach that threshold. Concerns about parking or traffic impacts must be backed up by documented, objective data (a "preponderance of evidence").

"It doesn't go well for cities, for the most part," SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick said of past cases between developers or nonprofit housing advocates and municipalities. "The courts are very consistently and strictly construing those laws in favor of approving housing."

SLO City Council members see it as unwise to drag matters into court that aren't likely to tilt in their favor.

"If [Gurnee's] talking about becoming a test case for local control, he's dreaming," Christianson said. "It's ridiculously expensive, and the likelihood of winning is like zero. It's a false expectation. I think he's misleading the public."

"If we do what we know is not legally possible, that's real money that could've gone somewhere else in the city," Mayor Harmon added.

Pease also expressed skepticism with this strategy.

"Success of fighting back does not sound promising to me, from what I understand," she said.

Gurnee told New Times that he is aware of the risks involved.

"There are some serious fines if [projects] are turned down for the wrong reasons," he said. "You have to be cautious with that."

If state law can't change and if SLO can't deny unpopular developments, Gurnee hopes to tweak city policies to try to thwart overdevelopment, mentioning the city's land use and circulation element (last updated in 2014) and recently overhauled zoning regulations.

But finding colleagues on the council with the same mission may be challenging if he's elected.

"I think we're already doing what is appropriate," Pease said. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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