Facing a lawsuit, national attention and a warning from California Attorney General Rob Bonta, the Woodside Town Council on Sunday backpedaled on its recent move to ban all projects under a new state housing law.
The town froze applications two weeks ago, citing a loophole that exempts mountain lion habitats.
He made the announcement in a report out of a closed session meeting on Sunday, Feb. 6, in which the council discussed a potential lawsuit by Californians for Homeownership, a nonprofit that focuses on local governments that limit the development of housing.
On Jan. 11, the Town Council passed an ordinance that caps the size of units allowed under SB 9 to 800 square feet. The state law allows homeowners to split up single-family lots to build up to four residential units. Woodside also prohibited basements under SB 9 units and excluded development in areas at high risk of wildfires.
Starting on Jan. 25, as first reported by The Almanac, the town put an indefinite hold on all housing projects under SB 9 because of a clause in the law that prohibits development in areas identified as habitats for protected species. The move came after a council study session on the same date, when the council discussed the mountain lion clause, but the council did not formally vote on it, according to Interim Town Clerk Melissa Cardinale.
"When the issue was raised at the Jan. 25, 2022, council meeting, the town had not yet received guidance on this question from state authorities," Ruess said. "As a result, the town paused acceptance of SB 9 applications while town staff continued to study and determine the answer to that question."
In the two weeks since the meeting, town staff received guidance from the Department of Fish and Wildlife on how to identify habitat, he said. "The Department of Fish and Wildlife advised that the entire Town of Woodside cannot be considered habitat. As such, the Town Council has directed staff to immediately begin accepting SB 9 applications."
Mountain lions are a protected species because they are a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act and Woodside, in "its entirety" lies within a mountain lion habitat, according to the town. The Fish and Game Commission planned to release a decision on the animals' status in November, but the agency has yet to make that determination.
Ruess noted that "any interim statements made by any individual member of the town council represent personal views that do not represent the collective views of the Town Council."
"The town of Woodside has consistently exceeded state mandated low and moderate income housing commitments, and the town council remained focused on doing its part to alleviate the regional shortfall in affordable housing," he said.
There were no housing applications submitted to the town under SB 9 before project applications were halted, according to Bryant.
Matthew Gelfand, legal counsel for Californians for Homeownership, emailed the town on Feb. 2, threatening a lawsuit and called staff's finding "absurd" that every single residential parcel in the town qualifies as mountain lion habitat. He wrote that it also violated SB 330, which prohibits local governments from putting up new barriers to housing production.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta warned town officials on Sunday, Feb. 6, that the effort to declare the town a mountain lion habitat is an attempt to avoid complying with state law.
"There is no valid basis to claim that the entirety of Woodside is a habitat for mountain lions," his office wrote to the town. "Habitat is land that has the capacity to support that species, including providing food and shelter. Land that is already developed — with, for example, a single-family home — is not, by definition, habitat."
In a press release, the Attorney General's office said the mountain lion habitat claim is contrary to the law and contrary to efforts to alleviate the state's affordable housing issues.
In Woodside small homes are currently listed for sale on Zillow at $1 million and up; a 1-bedroom apartment rent is about $2,500 a month.
The council's decision garnered national, and even international, attention, with The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Guardian jumping on the story after The Almanac published it.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, known for his housing advocacy, weighed in on Twitter, saying: "Can't wait for the lawsuit against Woodside for this brazen violation of state law."
Former Woodside mayor Daniel Yost, who served on the council from 2015 to 2020 and has lived in town for 19 years, told The Almanac "no one should believe for a second this (decision) is driven by mountain lion concerns."
"In my years in that I served on council, I never heard even a slight mention of preserving the mountain lion habitat," he said. "I heard about a fair share of concerns about housing; that’s what is driving this. … What I love about Woodside is we're creative problem solvers. We haven't hid behind cats as an excuse to take away residents' rights to modify or expand their housing (in the past)."
Yost noted that the "excellent" Woodside Elementary School's enrollment figures are declining because families can't afford to move to town.
The TK-8 grade public school has 365 students. Enrollment is down almost 11% from the 2018-19 school year, according to Almanac reporting this past fall.
"We trust that communities will find a way to balance protecting sensitive habitat with providing needed housing," said Cydney Bieber, a public affairs specialist for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which acquires and preserves more than 65,000 acres of open space in the region, in an email last week.
Last week, two residents in neighboring Portola Valley asked the Town Council to take similar action as Woodside in a Feb. 1 letter to town officials.
Los Altos Hills Mayor George Tyson said in an email that he has not heard from any residents wishing to emulate Woodside’s action, and his City Council has not met to discuss it.