Initiative that recently landed on Attorney General Bonta’s desk would let city governments override certain state laws

Rich Pedroncelli — Associated Press archives
 The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, above, has received a new initiative designed to make local governments — not the state — supreme in setting housing policies and patterns.


By THOMAS ELIAS | Columnist

PUBLISHED: August 8, 2023 at 5:00 a.m. | UPDATED: August 8, 2023 at 7:33 a.m.

If any California news media had actually covered these two strongly-related stories, it would have been difficult to avoid seeing the irony in them.

On the same July day that California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a stern warning to cities and counties around the state about alleged misuse of local “urgency” zoning rules designed to frustrate the increased housing density laws Bonta loves to push, the rebellion against those very laws formally began.


This happened when Bonta’s own office received a new initiative designed to make local governments — not the state — supreme in setting housing policies and patterns. Bonta’s warning cited laws passed in the last two years such as SB 9 and AB 2011, both of which demand that local governments approve multiple apartments or condominiums in areas that now feature single homes only on discrete properties.

However, the new initiative — which Bonta must formally name and summarize before supporters can seek signatures to place it on the November 2024 ballot — would give local officials or voters power to override those new laws and others that the Legislature passes or has passed to regulate housing and land use.

In short, if passed, this initiative would take lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom to a figurative woodshed and stop them from trying to reshape California into a far denser place than it ever has been.

A two-year delay in putting forward and passing something like this initiative now means the myriad buildings under construction or recently completed will survive and remain standing even if the new measure passes.

This initiative reflects a change in tactics for local governments and their backers who originally sought to pass a referendum canceling 2021’s landmark SB 9 and 10 laws that allow, among other things, as many as six new housing units on almost every lot now occupied by just one home.

The referendum that never qualified for the 2022 ballot failed because the coronavirus pandemic drove the cost of gathering signatures to unprecedented heights – as much as $16 per signature in some parts of the Bay Area.

There was also the fact that it targeted only SB 9 and 10, which have for the moment all but ended R-1 zoning in California. Even if those laws were canceled, referendum backers came to realize, determined lawmakers like state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, could respond by writing new ones that would be only slightly different and still get the density they want.

Those lawmakers, aided by threats from Newsom and Bonta to cut off virtually all state funding to local governments, pay no heed to local preferences or the character and ambience of individual cities. They treat Altadena the same as Atherton, San Dimas like Santa Cruz. Their guiding principle: everyone, everywhere must welcome high-rise living. Never mind that they do little to promote housing affordability and never mind the fact that almost half of what’s been built thus far remains vacant.

Rather than going after just two specific laws, the new initiative states that its purpose is to “protect the ability of local communities to make land-use planning and zoning decisions,” that “one size does not fit all” and that “local land-use planning or zoning initiatives approved by voters shall not be nullified or superseded by state law.”

In short, local governments would make land-use and housing decisions in perpetuity, if this passes. Bonta would in effect become a paper tiger making empty threats.

It’s possible the sponsors, including current and former leaders of cities around the state, could compromise with die-hard densifiers in the Legislature before this measure reaches the ballot, but that seems unlikely because some sponsors believe the new state housing laws are an attack against democracy itself.

“Taking this field away from local government is a way of wiping out democracy,” said Dennis Richards, a former longtime member of San Francisco’s planning commission. “People like Wiener are saying it does not matter what local residents think about their cities or how they’ve voted.”

That means the rebellion is on, and ironically, it’s Bonta who now gets to make the first move.

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