OPINION by T. KEITH GURNEE
California’s neighborhoods and the cities that harbor them are under mounting attacks by its Legislature that’s determined to pass a spate of ill-conceived bills that will change our neighborhoods forever.
If bills like SB 9, SB 10, SB 478, AB 1401, or AB 1322 make it through legislative committee hearings that are happening now, get ready for some real and negative changes to the livability, functionality, and safety of your neighborhood.
If you live in a single-family home in a single-family neighborhood — whether it be in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Pismo Beach, or in any other local town — the changes outlined below will come, perhaps not immediately but certainly soon:
1. Densification without representation: Under SB 9, the state would shoehorn higher density into low-density neighborhoods by allowing single-family lots to be divided into two parcels as small as 1200 square feet and have them developed with a total of anywhere between four to eight units where one home now exists. There has been no effort from the state to reach out to the cities, neighborhoods, and residents will be negatively affected by this bill.
2. Without warning: SB 9 would force local governments to approve these developments without any discretionary review, public hearing, or public notice to neighboring property owners. You could wake up one morning with construction starting next door with no warning.
3. Increasing traffic: Imagine if half the houses on your street in a single-family neighborhood were subject to “urban lot splits” under SB 9 and developed with four to eight units where one house stood. What would traffic be like on your street?
4. Inadequate parking: SB 9 and AB 1401 would prohibit cities from requiring any off-street parking whatsoever if the property is within ½ mile walking distance of a transit stop. Get ready for some ferocious competition for on-street parking in your neighborhood. Where would service vehicles, landscape maintenance, special delivery, visiting family members, and other vehicles park? In San Luis Obispo where the city is removing on-street parking in single-family neighborhoods for unnecessary bike lanes, the task of finding parking in one’s neighborhood will be even more challenging.
5. Inadequate water resources: The state’s efforts to push multifamily housing into single-family zones comes at a time when California is in another exceptional drought with no prospects of increasing water supplies. Reservoirs are almost empty. We’re only in the second year of this drought and we don’t have enough water to serve the people who are already here. Get ready for some increasingly draconian water conservation measures that will only get worse over time.
6. Exposure to wildfires: On top of California’s exceptional drought, we are entering yet another scary wildfire season. With so little water in our reservoirs — whether it be Lake Nacimiento, Lopez Lake, or other State lakes like Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville, or Lake Mendocino — how can you fight wildfires when these reservoirs are almost empty?
7. Arbitrary development standards: A state-established set of top-down, one-size-fits-all arbitrary development standards will govern all future development within your neighborhood. The same rules that apply to Fresno would apply to Cambria, Santa Margarita or Avila Beach. Over time, our neighborhoods throughout the state will witness a creeping “sameness” in their appearance and declining livability.
8. Vanishing yards: The state’s imposition of minimum side and rear yard setbacks of 4 feet will essentially eliminate private yards where your kids once played. Front yard setbacks and their landscaping will also be up for grabs with high density development in our neighborhoods.
9. Loss of privacy: Those who continue to live in their single-family homes will find high-density development next door to them overlooking their yards and homes.
10. Loss of tree canopies: Mature trees in long established single-family neighborhoods will likely be on the chopping block to make way for high-density development, eliminating the carbon sequestration values that these trees have in fighting climate change.
11. Increasing heat island effect: Eliminating yards through high density development will transform porous green spaces into hardscape and buildings unshaded by mature trees, hardening the environment of your neighborhood and increasing the heat island effect.
12. Increased stormwater: The hardening of the landscape through high-density development will generate considerably more stormwater and urban runoff than the neighborhood may be equipped to handle.
13. Rampant real estate speculation: Today’s soaring costs of buying a home will only get worse. Increasing the development potential of single-family lots will only increase those costs beyond the ability of younger Californians to enjoy the American dream of homeownership. Well-financed predatory speculators will swoop in and outbid those with a limited ability to buy a home.
14. Lack of affordability: While these proposed laws are couched in terms “addressing the lack of affordable housing”, they do nothing about requiring, facilitating, or funding housing that would be affordable to moderate, low, and very low-income households. Instead, these bills promote the rampant development of high-end market rate housing, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.
15. Displacement: Primarily in heavily urbanized areas with mass transit, these bills and the gentrification they will bring will surely displace communities of color where Blacks and Latinos have worked hard to attain the American dream of homeownership while taking pride in their neighborhoods.
16. Overburdened infrastructure: The infrastructure of single-family neighborhoods was designed and installed to serve low-density development. Increasing the sizes of water and sewer lines, storm drains, fire flows, will eventually come to roost. Yet the state provides no money or impacting local infrastructure. As single-family neighborhoods begin to fill in with multifamily development, it’s almost certain that consistent expensive emergency repairs will need to be made at great disruption to the neighborhood.
17. Ignoring local planning rules: These laws, in one fell swoop, will forcibly amend every General Plan and Zoning Ordinance in every one of California’s 482 cities and 58 counties. It’s no surprise that the League of California Cities strongly opposes SB 9.
18. Loss of local control: This batch of state legislation will essentially destroy the ability of local governments to plan for the future of their communities. The state will be taking those powers away from local government If one would complain to your council member about changes these developments bring to their neighborhoods, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it because the state will have taken away the self-determination of local governments and their ability to plan for their futures in character and context with the uniqueness of their communities.
Unless Californians wake up, realize what is about to happen to the places where they live, and take immediate action to contact their state representatives to fight this legislation, these changes will happen to their neighborhoods.
For those of you who live in San Luis Obispo County, you should know that our state representative, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, just voted for AB 1401 to prohibit cities from requiring any off-street parking whatsoever for parcels within ½ mile walking distance of a transit stop.
Last year, Cunningham voted for SB 1120, a bill that would have up-zoned every single-family neighborhood in California had it not failed at the end of the 2020 legislative session. SB 1120 was essentially identical to SB 9. He’s at it again but it’s not too late to try to change his mind.
All of our neighborhoods are in the state’s crosshairs. It’s time to rise up and fight back! Call or email your local assembly member and state senator today to stop this madness and let them know how you will vote in the next election if they vote for these bills.
T Keith Gurnee is a member of the Board of Directors of livable California a statewide nonprofit organization representing thousands of Californians fighting to protect their neighborhoods and for the self-determination of local governments. He is also a professional planner and urban designer, a former San Luis Obispo City Council member, and past president of the California Planning Roundtable.