City Council approves General Plan amendments, EIR to move housing plans forward

The City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved amendments to the General Plan and the Environmental Impact Report for the city’s Housing Element implementation. It also introduced and conducted a first reading of changes to the city’s Zoning Ordinance. The city said in a press release last week that a second reading could occur as soon as March 4 and the code amendments would go into effect 30 days after that.

The city has come a long way since it first began to grapple with the task of figuring out how to accommodate 587 new homes by 2031 – a target mandated by the State of California in 2021 as part of the Piedmont’s 6th Cycle Housing Element. The City Council adopted the Housing Element plan in March 2023 and the California Department of Housing and Community Development certified it that November. The proposed amendments will make the General Plan and Zoning Ordinance consistent with the programs outlined in the Housing Element and align with state law.

Several programs identified in the Housing Element have already been completed, including new incentives for the creation of affordable Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), objective design standards for multi-family and mixed-use development, and securing a “Priority Development Area” designation for areas of land near Grand Avenue and in Moraga Canyon, which increases Piedmont’s eligibility for additional state funding to support affordable housing development in these areas.

Early housing meetings were contentious, marked by angry and confused residents who took issue with where and how that many homes were to be built in an already overbuilt city. But over three years and many public workshops, hearings, and meetings, the outrage appears to have subsided (at least publicly). Only three speakers called in to comment on specific plan details via Zoom Tuesday night. Councilmembers praised staff (Director of Planning and Building Kevin Jackson, Senior Planner Pierce Macdonald, Associate Planner Gopika Nair, and Assistant Planner Steven Lizzarago) and the Planning Commission’s deliberation and diligence in laying the groundwork for discussion and Tuesday’s decision.

“Three years is quite some time — thank you for getting us to this point,” said Councilmember Jennifer Long. “We’re creating more opportunities to create diverse housing stock.”

“I’m always impressed with our community… we have engaged experts who are intimately involved in a a helpful way,” said Councilmember Tom Ramsay.

A question of voting

Councilmember Betsy Andersen asked City Attorney Michelle Kenyon to again say whether or not the City Charter required zoning changes to be voted on by residents. Kenyon reaffirmed her legal analysis from 2022 regarding this question of “voting” to say that while the City Charter requires voter approval to change zoning district boundaries or move properties between zones, it does not require a vote to modify uses and densities in an existing zone without changing boundaries — and that there was precedent for doing so. (Whether or not Piedmonters should be able to vote on some aspects of the Housing Element was an issue in the 2022 local elections. In 2022 the state advised the ckity that a Housing Element contingent on voter approval would be deemed inherently out of compliance and would be rejected.)

Wildfires and carbon emissions

The EIR studies and discloses the environmental impacts of Housing Element implementation as a whole – looking at the overall impacts to Piedmont once each of the 77 programs included in the Housing Element are realized. City Council approved the EIR even though it identified several parts of the city’s housing plan — notably wildfire and carbon emissions — as having “significant and unavoidable risk.”

Councilmember Andersen asked to better understand why they would certify the EIR’s “Statement of Overriding Concerns” given the concerns around wildfires. Assistant Planner Steven Lizzarago and the city attorney said that although adding housing to a city that has some areas of high risk for wildfire, given climate realities in California it’s now something all jurisdictions simply have to plan for and mitigate. “Even though we believe [mitigation efforts such as new evacuation routes, emergency access, parking, fuel management will work], we can’t be sure everything is going to work as planned,” Lizzarago said, explaining the decision to highlight it as a concern.

Mayor Jen Cavenaugh asked about the impact of increasing density on the city’s climate goals of reducing carbon emissions. Lizzarago said that while it was true that adding more people to Piedmont will increase carbon emissions, the overall impact of building more housing regionally (and at the state and national level) offsets the local impact. The staff report said that “balancing the specific economic, legal, social, technological, and other benefits of the project alternatives, the proposed SOC determines that the unavoidable adverse environmental impacts identified may be considered acceptable due to the specific considerations listed above which
outweigh the unavoidable, adverse environmental impact that will be caused by implementation of the proposed Housing Element Implementation project.”

What’s new

SB9 could have the most notable impact in town, said Planning Director Kevin Jackson, who described it as a way to address the “missing middle” — adding more duplexes and fourplexes vs. single family homes to the city.

Other key changes proposed for the General Plan and Zoning Ordinance include:

  • Development standards for SB9 lot splits: SB9 is a state law that allows property owners to divide their property into two lots, each of which could have two primary homes and an ADU as long as the lots meet minimum size requirements and other standards. The proposed Zoning Ordinance update would create Piedmont-specific development standards for such lot splits and implements Housing Element Program 1.J. (No short-term rentals allowed.)
  • New ADU requirements: When constructing a new home on properties over 5,000 square feet, a new ADU or JADU would be required as part of the project. This requirement would also apply to remodel projects that demolish 70% or more of the existing residence. This measure implements Housing Element Program 1.E.
  • Revised development standards for multi-family residential: This proposal would revise rules around setbacks, parking, density, and lot coverage for multi-family residential developments in areas where multi-family housing is already allowed. The new standards would permit heights up to four stories. Parking restrictions are looser than they have been in the past. This measure implements Housing Element Programs 1.D, 1.F, 1.G., 1.H, and others.
  • Proposed new and amended General Plan policies to protect special status animals and historical resources, reduce noise from construction, and reduce vehicle miles traveled by residents: The proposed amendments to the Environmental Hazards Element, Transportation Element, Design and Preservation Element, and the Natural Resources and Sustainability Element include measures to protect the natural and built environment.
  • Proposed new designations on the Land Use Diagram of the Land Use Element: The proposed Land Use Diagram would have a new Moraga Canyon Specific Plan land use description and the areas corresponding to Zone C would be clearly indicated.

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