149 Fourth St, Sonoma
In late 2016, a homebuilder began the arduous journey to construct three homes on vacant lots in Sonoma. Each HAA-compliant project was submitted separately, though the City of Sonoma processed all three as a group. This included producing three CEQA reports, which each included special attention to the other projects in the group; the City of Sonoma performed one overarching CEQA study in three comprehensively similar stages as if all three projects were one submission.
When the projects finally had their hearings at the Planning Commission, the city recognized that the CEQA studies showed no impact and adopted the reports as such. The study included an analysis of each project individually and with all three projects as a group. Opponents appealed and at the project’s final City Council hearing, the City Council of Sonoma upheld the appeal. They claimed that all three projects should have been submitted and reviewed as one three-home project and as such the CEQA studies were inadequate, resulting in a final denial of all three projects. Not content to stop at CEQA, the City Council made further findings that the projects–despite the Planning Commission’s previous statements to the contrary–did not adhere to subjective standards of aesthetics.
The City of Sonoma knew that they couldn’t deny these projects for subjective reasons without running afoul of the Housing Accountability Act. Their strategy was to deny the permits by simply arguing that the studies should not have been broken up in the first place. A clear attempt to run around the Housing Accountability Act by using the false flag of environmental concern.
How it ended
CIties will try anything to justify denying housing. Sonoma denied a three-home development that had already made its way through the long and difficult process of analyzing the project’s environmental impacts required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). When the City Council felt pressure from neighbors to deny the project, they went in search of a reason to justify it. They arbitrarily decided that the way the environmental review was done was incorrect, and that it should be analyzed as a single project rather than three separate projects. This denial was not justified under the HAA nor CEQA, so CaRLA sued. Unfortunately, we ran into an unfriendly judge who decided that nothing could overrule a city’s CEQA decision — no matter how unfounded or arbitrary. We settled the case to allow the developer to refile and move forward with their project. This case shows how CEQA remains a huge impediment to housing reforms across California. We continue to explore ways that we can fight back against it.