Letter to the Editor | City Council should hear from citizens before making zoning changes

Most Piedmonters are not aware that Piedmont is a charter city under California state governance.  One element of Piedmont’s charter residents may be aware of addresses public voting on zoning changes:

“The Council may classify and reclassify the zones established, but no existing zones shall be reduced or enlarged with respect to size or area, and no zones shall be reclassified without submitting the question to a vote at a general or special election.” (Article 9.02).

Article 9.02 presumably is intended to protect the city from being subject to zoning changes from the state but in truth, it’s been City Hall that’s been chipping away at 9.02 over the years.  9.02 was used in 2006 when a vote was held to convert the 801 Building from Zone A: single family residential to Zone B: public facilities. Both an enlargement of Zone B and reclassification of the lot from private to public land triggered the vote that approved the rezoning.  

The 2011 Housing Element interpreted 9.02 differently:

“The Charter requirements apply only to zoning map changes, and not to zoning text changes. This gives the City the flexibility to modify the lists of permitted and conditionally permitted uses, and to alter development standards, without a citywide vote.”

That makes sense to a point – the City needs flexibility to add uses to a zone as community needs and lifestyles change. But as explained to me by staff at the time, this flexibility needs to be consistent with the zone classification.  Mixed use (rental over retail) is a commercial activity appropriate for Zone D: commercial. By contrast, housing in Zone B would not be but could be allowed if approved by public vote.

On Monday, having accepted the 2023 Housing Element, Council will revise the City Code to further weaken 9.02:

“Section 9.02 of the City Charter, … is understood to mean the city may not change the zone boundaries, or change (reclassify) a property from one zone to another. However, the City may make amendments to the zoning ordinance within the established zoning districts.”

Do these amendments need to be consistent with the zone? The City Attorney’s opinion on the city charter is available at Piedmont Civic Association but basically comes down to the conclusion that “change” and “reclassify” mean the same thing and that any amendment would not be subject to vote. Was that the intent of the 1987 City Charter Review Committee?  That and other questions were going to be addressed when the first draft of the 2023 Housing Element called for a committee to study the charter but last-minute changes to the draft removed that provision.   

Housing advocates and bureaucrats generally don’t like city charters because civic engagement slows down development. Nimbyism is a genuine concern, but city staff acknowledges that Piedmont’s charter has never been a hindrance to housing. The addition of mixed use was added to Zone D after a city survey showed 71% of residents supported the change. Citizen surveys broadly rejected civic center housing development, rightly so given how little planning was behind those proposals. Piedmonters have opinions about the charter and zoning changes – City Council really should ask them by vote or survey.

One thought on “Letter to the Editor | City Council should hear from citizens before making zoning changes

  1. Bascially zoning is essential to control uses and prevent tanneries and steel mills from being next to residences. Zones are deliniated by boundaries and within each zone’s boundary are the allowed uses. Reclassify certainly must mean changing or adding uses within each zone. Or why bother to have zones? While the City Attorney’s legal opinion allows City Council to make changes without a city wide vote, they are not required to and can put the matter before voters.

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