Council Wary of Law’s Impact on Local Housing

A visibly frustrated — and at times, seemingly defeated — City Council dove into the weeds at its meeting on Tuesday as it sought to clarify the requirements of state Senate Bill 35 and its potential repercussions on housing density across Burbank neighborhoods.
Ultimately, however, the council voted 5-0 to resume discussion of the subject at its next meeting, on Sept. 14, after requesting that the city staff provide more details on the bill’s language and key provisions.
SB 35, which took effect in 2018, streamlines approval of housing development project applications that meet specified criteria, bypassing the conditional use permit requirement in cities — like Burbank — that have failed to develop enough residential units as required under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment. The legislation essentially removes local control in the approval process and prohibits the often nuanced decision making through which the council and Planning Commission decide if a proposed development is appropriate for a site or meets a neighborhood’s character.

This week’s back-and-forth was the continuation of a discussion at an Aug. 10 meeting at which Councilwoman Sharon Springer requested that a report on the bill be made an agenda item. She also asked how the legislation might sway a potential application to build a large housing development at the Pickwick Bowl site, although that was not further addressed this week as the city has not yet received a formal application.
Assistant Community Development Director Fred Ramirez delivered a staff-prepared report on SB 35, but questions and confusion over some of the bill’s wording were rampant, particularly over conflicts between Burbank’s General Plan and Municipal Code regarding permitted uses or development standards.
“In other words, where the General Plan and Municipal Code conflict on matters … a proposed project is deemed consistent as long as it meets the General Plan standards — even if the zoning is more restrictive or protective,” Ramirez read.
That was a particular sticking point for Springer, who continued to defend the council’s right to control the ultimate decision of whether a proposed development moves forward or not.
“The language of SB 35 uses conditional use, [which] is a tool of discretionary approval, but it doesn’t talk about zone change and General Plan amendments because that is our job,” she said. “That’s what we do, that’s what our population elected us to do. So where in SB 35 is the authorization to use conditional use and discretionary approval?
“I’m concerned that this is being misinterpreted,” Springer continued. “We are granted the power for zone changes and General Plan amendments. We need to retain that power. There is so much at stake here; it’s so complicated. I suggest we ask staff to come back with a clearer explanation of conditional use on SB 35.”
After further discussion, Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes acknowledged the unappealing umbrella of SB 35, but also why Burbank is now in this situation. He asked Ramirez to elaborate on why the city must abide by the bill.
“I guess we all have to own it, right? The fact that the city’s housing production numbers since the last planning cycle [started in 2014] have not kept pace with the thresholds that were set in place,” Ramirez said.
Said Talamantes: “We all have to do our share. We as policymakers have to adhere by what the requirements are. And we have to do this with every project that comes in under SB 35. … We can’t say, ‘We like this one more than that one.’ I sense my colleague’s and even staff’s frustration. This is a tough thing.”
City Attorney Amy Albano explained the bill’s repercussions in starker terms, casting a darker outlook than council members seemed prepared to discuss.
“SB 35 changed the rules. … Your discretionary approvals go out the door as long as you had designated it either in your zoning code or General Plan as residential. That’s what I keep going back to — it’s not planning as we always knew it and did it; it’s a whole new way of doing business when you are forced to look at a project under SB 35. The same rules don’t always apply, and that’s where we find ourselves right now.”
Springer dug in, however, and the council ultimately voted unanimously to bring the subject back with more explanation and updated information on the city’s specific residential and nonresidential zoning distributions and clarifications on discretionary approval and conditional use permits.
“I just don’t think we should roll over and relinquish,” she added.