California’s attack on local governments

July 6, 2019
T. Keith Gurnee

T. Keith Gurnee


It’s amazing how few Californians realize that California’s State Legislature is declaring war on its cities and counties with punishing legislation that is currently pending hearings. Their excuse: the state’s housing crisis which the state is wrongly blaming local governments. Their “cure:” robbing cities and counties of their local control and self-determination that are the reasons for their very existence.

To add to that “cure,” Governor Newsom’s just approved budget allows the state to fine cities $600,000 per month if they fail to boost housing starts, even if they don’t have the land, infrastructure, or water resources needed to serve that growth.

And where would the state have cities accommodate that new development? By banning single-family zoning, they would shoehorn high-density development and mixed uses into existing long-standing single-family neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support it.
Would the state provide funding for expanding local infrastructure and water resources to help cities meet the state’s mandates? Of course not!

These bills would rather attack that government which is closest to the people

This should be a wake-up call to all Californians. Remember that American dream of desiring to live in a detached home with its own yard in a single-family neighborhood? Well if the legislature succeeds, you can kiss that dream goodbye. Their “cure” is worse than the disease.

Now does the state have an affordable housing shortage? It does, but it’s readily apparent that the authors of these bills have wrongheaded ideas on how to address it. What’s worse is they can’t get their arms around the real cause of the problem: the explosion of high-tech and high-income job growth in many of our urban areas that don’t have the land or infrastructure capacity to house those workers.

Instead of collaborating with local government to address the jobs/housing issue, our legislature has chosen try pushing through a spate of ill-conceived bills. The legislature’s rush to pass such bills as SB 330, SB 592, AB 1487, and AB 1279 would transform our representative democracy into a top-down authoritarian regime that will strip away the self-determination and local control of local governments. That’s just the beginning of the negative consequences of what they’re doing.

The legislature should pause, take a deep breath, and start engaging and collaborating with the professional planning community and local governments to develop a deeper understanding of the problem and crafting meaningful, winning solutions to address it.

The attack’s consequences

Should SB 330, SB 592, or these other related bills become law, the consequences, both intended and unintended, would be dire for all levels of government in California.

Consider these:

SB 330, the “Housing Crisis Act”, is a real estate development bill in sheep’s clothing. Imposing high density development upon local communities without the planning, infrastructure, and resources necessary to sustain it, the state is ignoring the special context, natural limits, and fiscal solvency of local communities throughout California.

The authors of these bills would force us to live the way they want us to live, not the way we choose to live. Legislators like SB 330 author Sen. Nancy Skinner (Berkeley) and SB 592 author Sen. Scott Wiener (San Francisco) hail from dense cities where they apparently think all Californians should live in high-density housing in dense urban communities. That is a determination that should not be made at the state level.

SB 330 won’t result in dramatically increasing production of affordable housing. The approach these bills are taking will lead housing developers to use the state’s density bonuses, height increases, and land-use changes to build primarily high-end market rate housing while giving short shrift to affordable housing with undersized units that won’t appeal to families.

Both SB 330 and SB 592 are attacks on long-established single-family neighborhoods. These bills rely upon precluding future single-family zoning while forcing high density development and other uses into existing single-family neighborhoods. This will unalterably change the character and functionality of existing neighborhoods while overwhelming their existing infrastructure designed to serve only low-density housing. They also place the expense of providing updated infrastructure squarely on the backs of local government.

They will undo all local zoning regulations and design standards of affected cities and counties. All zoning ordinances prepared and adopted by local communities in compliance with state law will be supplanted by imposing wholesale, state-instituted, top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates in one fell swoop, even if they conflict with local General Plans.

Waiving/reducing parking requirements won’t result in greater transit ridership. Cars aren’t going away anytime soon, especially with the rise of electric vehicles. With transit ridership plunging in urban areas, reducing or eliminating parking requirements will only result in more congestion of our neighborhoods.

They would put developers in charge of the planning and development of our communities. The state’s mandated changes to locally developed general plans, coupled with a stiff penalty of $10,000 per unit payable to developers by local government for failing to abide by those mandates will place developers in the driver’s seat while relegating local planners to rapid permit processors.

They are gutting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). While this body of state law that has been with us since the early 1970s is sorely in need of reform due to its weaponization by trade unions and some environmental groups, SB 330 would completely exempt higher density housing developments with limited parking from CEQA. It’s hard to conceive of any other laws that will have greater environmental impacts on California’s communities than this legislation.

They ignore the distinctness, identity, diversity, and character of California’s urban areas, small cities and towns, and rural areas. These laws will promote a boring “sameness” in the physical development of California’s communities.

Approaching some solutions

Let it be said that the Assembly Local Government Committee should strongly oppose SB 330 and SB 592. It’s time to let calmer heads prevail and consider other approaches to solve California’s housing crisis. But in opposing these bills, it is only appropriate to offer potential solutions.
State and local governments need to work together with professional planners to seek other solutions, but one might already be available. The state legislature might want to consider using a framework document prepared by the California Planning Roundtable (CPR) titled “By-Right Right.”

CPR’s concept would give local governments a period of time–say one to two years–to prepare and adopt neighborhood or area plans that would allow by-right multi-family residential development within specified areas of their communities.

This would allow local jurisdictions to consider local context, receive public input, and allow housing by right in areas where transit is in close proximity, infrastructure is readily available, and where it will not create land-use conflicts. If local governments do not approve their plans within that time frame, state regulations would apply.

CPR also outlined the following six key principles to guide these plans and state legislation:

  • Base the form and density on the community type.
  • Reduce barriers to feasible development including CEQA streamlining.
  • Require inclusive communities.
  • Promote sustainable development.
  • Allow creative ways for jurisdictions to improve public services and facilities.
  • Include strong anti-displacement regulations.

SB 5, authored by State Senators Mike McGuire and Jim Beall, is a far better foundational piece of legislation than SB 330 or SB 50 or these other bills. If its authors would be willing to amend the legislation to embrace the recommendations of the California Planning Roundtable, it could contain the seeds of an equitable solution.

Other ideas

Job-rich cities could ask the state to provide grants to those that want to be job-rich to pay for the infrastructure and resources needed to sustain their growth. Or cities could take the initiative to rezone employment-based land uses to multifamily residential uses.

What about having the state plan for one or two “new towns” on state surplus lands with adequate resources where high-tech companies could be directed to locate along with the balance of housing needed to support their workers. Could that be the rebirth of the company towns?

What about eliminating local inclusionary housing fees that only increase the cost of housing while placing those fees in job-rich cities on new employers creating 25 or more new local jobs? Or requiring developers to actually develop long-term amount of affordable housing units equivalent for 20 percent to 30 percent of the amount of market rate housing they would build instead of paying in lieu fees?

And what about the state refusing to take responsibility for providing housing for the ever-increasing 25 percent to 30 percent enrollment increases in such state institutions as UC Berkeley and California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo which are raising housing demands and prices through the roof in those communities?

Perhaps the state should fine itself $600,000 per month to each of the cities where its universities are located.

These are just a few ideas that should be explored. Instead of making war on local governments, the state legislature should take actions that make it part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It’s time to make the right decisions at the right time, not the wrong decisions at the wrong time.

T. Keith Gurnee is a board member of Livable California and past president and emeritus member of the California Planning Roundtable.


For “Oldtimer” to call me an “Old Man, is that the pot calling the kettle black< Have to admit I'm a senior citizen but I still feel like a kid. Unfortunately Old timer doesn't know the first thing about quarries. Even if I wanted to (and I don't), you can't put a quarry where the rock ain't…..


Unfortunately people think they can vote their way to a better life instead of working for it. People need to look at Venezuela to see what they will really get.

coronet blue

Yet another problem that is rooted in overpopulation. Why isn’t there more concern over this? What happened to the ZPG movement of the 1960s?


Unfortunately, ZPG died when Jesus told the Pope he doesn’t like birth control. Less Catholics means less money for the church, bad for business. Money is God.


If you hand somebody a hammer everything becomes a nail!

If you hand out a plan everybody becomes a planner!!

Yes local nimbyism has squashed affordable housing!!!

So the State is trying to take power away from local Government and Planners, good luck with that!!!!

If you drive around any community here on the Central Coast you will spot affordable housing in the cracks and crevices of the community’s, mostly built or allowed before planners or restrictive zoning ordinances!!!!!

If local government waved a magic wand over me and said fix the affordable housing problem here on the Central Coast, it just needs to be safely built, the problem would be solved post haste!!!!!!

It’s the age old dilemma,Government is the problem, definitely not the cure, and so many suffer because of it:(


What else ” has squashed affordable housing!!!”, when the government will pay 75% or more of someones rent just so they can live in a certain area. Why would a landlord lower their rent when the government pays most of it.

George Garrigues

“They”? Who are “they”? Thanks for responding.

George Garrigues

I believe that much of the livable affordable housing, in Morro Bay, at least, is REQUIRED by state law, or else it would have not been built. And a good thing, too, because it brings PEOPLE into the seaside community instead of empty houses and condos being owned by folks from the Central Valley who drop in only when they can’t stand the heat over there.


If we had it Old Man keith way, all of San Luis would turn into Santa Margarita quarry. No thanks Keith.


Don’t need a quarry in slo town Oldtimer. There’s plenty of rocks between the ears of the council, mayor, and many of its residents.


Oldtimer, you lost ALL credibility when you used the bigoted label “Old man” as if age diminishes the validity of an opinion. Truly few emotions as completely ignorant as the derision shown by the millennials towards the more experienced members of society. The current crop of toddlers running around in diapers will someday view the millennials as unknowing, old fashioned fools who tattooed every part of their bodies and thought music consisted of two chords and cussing.


Ay! Making an assumption of age based on what, my typing pattern? My apologies for an ageism comment. And Keith was attempting to get another quarry when EIR’s says we have enough for 50 years plus. That’s an insult to many, including me, and is greedy.