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.


Excellent article. Thanks for writing this!!!



I AGREE with Mr. T Keith Gurnee!

Mr. Gurnee’s analysis of what is taking place is spot on, and it is disappointing to see our local SLO City government embracing the progressive kool-aid, there will come a day when SLO residents reflect back on what ruined our once bucolic city, and Heidi Harmon & Co. will be the villains.

As Mr. Gurnee correctly points out, the WHOLE point of local governments in a federalist system are to allow the local people to make the decisions which affect them locally. This Democratic/progressive state legislature, and delusional Governor Gavin Newsom have usurped the rightful role of local governments, and mandating development of housing t the state level will have ruinous consequences on our ay of life.

Real change begins with rejecting local progressives like Heidi Harmon, Adam Hill, Aaron Gomez, Caren Ray Rossum, Carlyn Christianson, etc., so that we can have a local government which would listen to the different constituencies, and act in the best interest of ALL OF US. People like Gavin Newsom and the liberals in the Democrat-controlled state legislature think they know what’s best for the rest of us, but they are wrong.

Speak truth to power.


Also happening at the federal to state level. Exactly why the electoral college was instituted.


Folk, you, are a stretcher of statements.


Welcome to California, Now go Home


People need to start voting for non-Democratic candidates to get rid of the one party state. There has to be some type of opposition party to stop the majority party from running amuck.


Is anyone surprised?


Not surprised. Just disappointed that people are putting up with this…

nazbol gang

How about shutting down mass immigration and getting rid of “sanctuary cities”


Its mind numbing trying to understand how Gov Nuisance justifies suing local Ca cities who dont have affordable housing when his own is literally of the priciest in America if not the world at this point. Sure everybody needs a place to live so whats next, suing car dealers for not having cars a person making $10 an hour can afford to buy? How about Starbucks? $3-5 for a cup of joe? Maybe they need some social justice lessons. I dont live in Beverly hills, La jolla or Napa cause its to expensive. Cant afford where you currently are/…then frikin move then to somewhere you can afford. But hey..we are talking California here. Social justice? no, its brainwashing its people of how to forget basic mathematics and life skills.


“It’s amazing how few Californians realize that California’s State Legislature is declaring war on its cities and counties”

Its because of the State run media…never before have we seen such a entanglement with the news media and elected officials of one side of the ideological spectrum…..its dangerous and this story shows why….

Rich in MB

Look Keith makes some great points, however the ship of smaller, limited, non-activist Government has long ago sailed out of the once Great Californian ports. Replacing what made both America and California Great with European Style command and control regulations and economy. Smart Growth was never understood or supported by the people, but the masterminds will force is on the surfs that don’t know what’s good for them.

And who are you going to complain to, the one Party Liberal Progressive Regime that runs the State, put in power by promising the undeliverable?

If it pleases the Crown Californians want their Freedom Back.

nazbol gang

yea true, the small limited government meme is a trope that has run its course. What’s the difference between a private company putting its boot on your head and the government doing it, at least with the government there is some kind of formal recourse. What made us great was the people, demographics is destiny. Does California think that replacing the founding stock of this country with the 3rd world will lead to anything good?


“…replacing the founding stock of this country with the 3rd world will lead to anything good?”

You mean the Native American Population as your “founding stock”, right? No? Then who? Please be specific with names, dates, times and places when it was anyone but Native Americans as your “founding stock of this country”…

Covert racism using clichés is tiresome and boring; be bold about your core beliefs, stand proud and be plain and very, very loud about whom you consider the “founding stock of this country”….

Interesting too, your “demographics is destiny” quote… Kinda scary when you consider it was at the core of Nazism and still is in the current form of Communism, don’t ya think?


Yours is precisely one of the points of what I wrote. And the SLO Councilmembers are thrilled that the state is doing this to us!