Los Al Council splits 3-2 to approve housing element zoning

Los Al council votes 3-2 to approve housing element resolution. Courtesy photo

After a lively marathon meeting that lasted more than four hours, the Los Alamitos City Council voted to approve a planning commission recommendation to rezone parts of the city to facilitate a housing element that meets state guidelines.

Despite an impassioned plea from an overflow crowd of concerned local homeowners to delay the vote for 90 days, the Council voted to approve the measure that will rezone parts of the city they have identified where housing can be built to meet state housing mandates.
City officials tried to emphasize that the vote they were taking, in essence, simply approved general zoning changes that facilitated the city’s housing element.

“I’d like to just point out before we start that this item is specifically about the housing element and not about any particular projects that may be proposed throughout the city, I think that’s just an important distinction,” said City Manager Chet Simmons as the discussion began.

Simmons asked Development Director Ron Noda to give the overcrowded room of concerned residents a briefing on the city’s housing element.

Noda explained, in detail, how the city came to develop its current housing element, saying the city and its consultants began developing the plan years ago.

At issue, currently, is not the Lampson Project, per se.

City officials acknowledge that no final applications have been recived, and, in fact, studies required for the Lampson Project’s permitting process have yet to be completed or submitted for that specific project.

However, what concerned residents was the provision embedded in the city’s ordinance that was passed by the Los Al Council last week that rezoned the 12-acre tract of land located on Lampson Ave. that has been proposed for a multi-use, 246-residence project from commercial to residential, in essence providing to developers the zoning designation required for the project.

That is what triggered residents’ concern, as dozens of local residents paraded to the microphone to make any number of cases for why the city should not vote for the rezoning ordinance, mostly asking for a simple 90-day delay.

Residents said that despite the city claiming to have used multiple forms of outreach, including ads in the Event News Enterprise, they were caught off guard by the project. They claimed a delay of 90 days to the vote would be in order and give everyone time to do more research.

“We’re asking for a 90-day continuance,” said Brian Kiebler, one of the residents against the project. “The risk is low,” he said, noting that “not one city has been fined for not having an approved housing element. “Nobody is against low-income housing,” said Kiebler, but approving the delay would make residents “feel like we’ve been a part of he process that has been fair and transparent.”

Hold on, said Council member Shelley Hasselbrink, explaining that in the city of La Habra, city officials lost control of a housing development of more than 700 homes that will consume a local golf course because, in the absence of an approved housing element, developers took advantage of a “builder’s remedy” that got the project approved.

“Keep in mind the La Habra City Council denied that application in 2020 for 530 homes and the developer wanted to do it anyway. They found the state remedy loophole now they’re building more than 530 homes and the city can’t do anything about it other than sit on the sidelines and watch it being overdeveloped more than what they already declined,” she warned the council.

Not having a housing element is a risk, said Simmons, “and part of my job is risk mitigation so I am going to ask you to do this as plainly as I can,” said Simmons.
“If somebody were to submit a development application to the city, you would not be able to legally disprove it on the grounds that it conflicts with our zoning or our general plan policies or standards, meaning a multifamily high-density project, for example, could go into a zone where that type of use is not otherwise permitted,” said city attorney Michael Daudt.

Carol Churchill, a Rossmoor attorney, provided to the Council part of the extensive research she has done on the project, saying, “your risk under the builder’s remedy is really low and the $10,000 fine rule, according to government code, is imposed only by a court.”
The city is nowhere near any of that, she suggested, explaining the complicated legal framework.

Mayor Tanya Doby seemed to somewhat change the mood and tenor of the resident’s anger, at least momentarily, with an impassioned statement about how much the city had more local control.

“Since I’ve been in the mayor’s seat, right, I take that very seriously, I have been talking to everybody that I can get my hands on to find out what can we do,” said Doby, “even in Sacramento.”

“I hear what you’re saying, and you are not wrong,” the mayor said. “Until I started sitting in rooms, and on calls with people who made it abundantly clear that there is no one in our hierarchy that will get this changed for us,” she said.

“It comes from the governor now and he’s not changing it,” she said.

In addition, residents were appreciative that city officials went above and beyond the norm of many local governments, actually providing answers within legal limits to questions posed during oral communications.

Moreover, the two newest members of the Council, Trisha Murphy and Emily Hibard, made their presence known as they peppered the city manager and staff with questions, sometimes pointed.

For instance, Murphy was upset that staff had not included a letter in their packets that actually proved that there had been a recommendation by airport regulators that the housing project might violate rules governing the Joint Forces Training Base airfield that was not shared with the Council, even if for technical reasons.

Near the end of the meeting, Hibard asked the staff to provide answers to each and every question they had posed in the meeting.

“If there’s anything that I can do or if there’s anything that this council can do if there’s anything that this staff can do to earn your trust, we’re asking you to earn your trust,” she said.

In fact, Hibard made a motion to grant residents the 90-day variance for more time, a motion seconded by Murphy, the Council’s other new member.

“I have received several emails from residents and community members asking us to honor the continuance of 90 days,” said Murphy.

The motion to delay the vote on the housing element ordinance failed 3-2, with Hasselbrink, Doby and Mayor Pro-tem Jordan Nefulda voted again.

Hasselbrink then made the motion, seconded by Nefulda, to approve staff’s recommendation to approve the resolution approving the housing element ordinance, which then passed 3-2.

Hasselbrink, Nefulda and Doby voted to approve the resolution while Hibard and Murphy voted against.