car Los Gatos Lodge
A yellow car drives in front of the Los Gatos Lodge property Aug. 31, 2023. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

In an Aug. 22 letter to Los Gatos’ Community Development Director Joel Paulson, the Los Gatos Community Alliance asked for more properties to be added to—not erased from—the list of sites where residential development is encouraged.

It was a different strategy for a group that successfully fended-off densification through a referendum drive that rewound development rules to 2010 levels.

Their representative, Matthew D. Francois of Irvine-based Rutan & Tucker, LLP, said preliminary proposals for Los Gatos Lodge and Phase 2 of the North 40 suggest the assumptions in the current Housing Element won’t pan out, specifically when it comes to building homes for people in the “very low” and “moderate” income categories.

According to the group’s calculations, given what’s come in, Los Gatos is now short 141 “very low” units and 67 “moderate” units, compared to what it’s supposed to plan for under the Regional Housing Needs Allocation mandate.

“The Town’s RHNA for very low units is 537 units and for moderate units is 320,” the letter reads. “With the reductions associated with the SB 330 Preliminary Applications, the Town only has 396 very low units and 253 moderate units.”

The Alliance also pointed to a criticism in the Department of Housing and Community Development’s May 30 denial of Los Gatos’ Housing Element draft.

LGCA’s letter directed Paulson’s attention to the portion where HCD said Los Gatos must do a better job of looking at how likely it is that housing will come to fruition on parcels where it’s possible to develop the property without building any homes.

Francois also highlighted how government officials told the Town to do more work on considering if construction would occur on previously developed sites.

“When a Housing Element relies on nonvacant sites to accommodate more than 50 percent of the RHNA for lower income households, it must demonstrate that existing uses are not an impediment to additional residential development,” he wrote. “Absent findings based on substantial evidence, the existing uses will be presumed to impede additional residential development and cannot be used to demonstrate adequate sites to accommodate the agency’s RHNA.”

According to the Rutan & Tucker missive, the Los Gatos Lodge proposal, sited on 8.81 acres of land, is moving forward under the State’s “Builder’s Remedy” fast-track system.

“Because the Town does not have a certified Housing Element, the project is subject to the ‘builder’s remedy’ and can proceed irrespective of its non-conformity with current planning and zoning designations,” it reads, adding North 40’s second phase would be able to take advantage of the same rules, too. “Town Staff has indicated that these are just preliminary applications and do not need to be factored into the analysis as to whether the capacity is realistic. Such a response significantly downplays the legal significance of the SB 330 Preliminary Applications submitted.”

The Town says only a preliminary plan for a development at the United States Post Office lot downtown explicitly references the “Builder’s Remedy” mechanism, while the one for Los Gatos Lodge points, instead, to the law that relates to the “Builder’s Remedy”—and two other controversial SB330 projects seek to invoke density bonuses.

Post Office site on smokey day
Looking through the Town Plaza Park trees towards the United States Post Office property, the location of a potential “Builder’s Remedy” project. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Town enlists consultant for draft plan edits

Los Gatos has been shuffling its urban design deck, having allowed its contract with original consultant EMC Planning Group Inc., a Monterey-based company, to expire July 31.

The Scope of Work section of that original agreement required “Delivery of a draft and final draft housing element, including any subsequent updates to other general plan elements as required by State law.”

When asked why the consultant won’t be continuing on, Community Development Director Paulson told the Los Gatan, “For this final phase of the Housing Element update process the Town’s needs are more focused.”

EMC Planning did not reply by deadline when asked about the switch, Tuesday.

Subcontractor Root Policy Research, however, is providing additional services, as Pasadena-based Veronica Tam and Associates, Inc. takes the lead.

Tam was tasked, in January 2022, with identifying 600 additional affordable housing units in Redondo Beach to help fix its rejected Housing Element, per Easy Reader News.

It was brought into compliance eight months later.

The Encinitas’ Housing Element Update Task Force opted not to work with Tam, given previous experience with the firm, the Del Mar Times reported in 2017.

That municipality signed on with Kimley-Horn & Associates, Inc., the company currently working with Scotts Valley on its Housing Element.

Los Gatos Town staff once referenced Encinitas as an example of a community with a certified Housing Element worth learning from.

Paul McDougall, the senior program manager at HCD who has been quite critical of Los Gatos’ Housing Element drafts, to date, once noted he appreciated the “hard work and dedication” of Tam (along with a municipal planner) while rejecting Culver City’s Draft Housing Element, on Nov. 8, 2021.

In that case, it was nearly an entire year later (Oct. 10, 2022) before the Los Angeles County city got its Housing Element—due Oct. 15, 2021—approved.

Tam has also been involved in Hermosa Beach’s Housing Element process—which was recently submitted for review, nearly two years late.

“The unfortunate thing is…there are new State laws, and the nuances of the State laws are so confusing,” she commented during an Aug. 8 Hermosa Beach Council meeting, as part of explaining how minimum-density regulations currently work.

That wealthy Southern California community came up with enough locations for their Housing Element adoption by adding a church’s property and a Mitsubishi dealership as possible sites for living quarters.

Alliance says more work needed to comply

With Tam enlisted to spruce up Los Gatos’ draft, planners zeroed-in on two key aspects: the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing analysis and the Sites Inventory.

Root Policy made some edits addressing problems with segregation in Los Gatos, and even more progressive Town officials say the document is starting to look quite robust.

Tam did an evaluation of the places Los Gatos is eyeing for housing and has been working up justifications for why this is fertile ground that will bear housing fruit.

According to the Town, she’s specifically addressing questions about the likelihood of redevelopment.

Tam’s dug into the potential for “SB9” lot-splits, added up projects that have come on-line in recent months, and says she thinks Los Gatos’ Sites Inventory is still good-to-go.

But during the Aug. 24 Housing Element Advisory Board Meeting, Jak Van Nada of the Los Gatos Community Alliance strongly disagreed.

No one really believes Los Gatos’ plan complies with State law, he argued.

“We are all in uncharted waters,” he said. “I’m concerned that the leadership of the Town has severely failed us for the past two years.”

That’s when HEAB member Ryan Rosenberg called Van Nada out for his apparently flip-flopping position.

“I know that at one point—and maybe at many points—you were opposed, I think, to trying to increase the number of units that we targeted. Right?” he said, referring to an early figure that was higher than the 1,993 required by the housing ministry. “Because there was the ‘1,993—stick with whatever HCD gives us.’ But now, if I’m understanding, you’re asking…HEAB to greatly increase the number of units. So, how do you square those two things? That’s the part I didn’t quite understand.”

Van Nada said he was “always” supportive of around 2,500 units (the 1,993 mandated under RHNA, plus a buffer).

“We are not—absolutely not—for up-zoning the whole town,” he said. “That’s why we created the referendum.”

In an Oct. 11, 2021 blog post on the LGCA website, the group railed against staff’s proposal for around 4,000 homes over the next two decades, advocating instead to simply put just 1,993 units “plus a slight buffer” in the General Plan. This should only be increased later, at the time of the next Housing Element cycle, the LGCA wrote.

Their efforts put enough pressure on local politicians that Los Gatos ultimately committed to around 25% less residential growth over the next 20 years.

However, the Alliance deployed a referendum drive that suspended the Land Use and Community Design elements of the 2040 General Plan and forced the Town to spend time updating these portions of the prior General Plan as a stop-gap measure.

The fact the Housing Element wasn’t certified has given developers a leg to stand on when it comes to claiming the Town is required to essentially rubber-stamp their proposals.

Town Attorney Gabrielle Whelan said there are already projects on the table whose proponents may argue must be allowed to bypass Town processes.

“The fact is, four applicants have submitted SB330 pre-applications, and SB330 pre-applications vest a developer to the zoning standards that were in effect at the time that it was deemed submitted,” Whelan said, noting the Town’s position is that Los Gatos’ Housing Element was successfully adopted (though not certified) by the deadline. “And so there probably will be applicants who will say, ‘I vested to the status of the Town having a non-certified Housing Element.’ And so, we’ll just have to see how that plays out.”

Tam set up a meeting with HCD for the first week of September to get a sense of just how on-track Los Gatos is with its Housing Element.

Previous articleLos Gatos High cross country teams poised for a championship run
Next articleSmash Mouth singer Steve Harwell abused cocaine, stalked and harassed Los Gatos woman, petition alleged
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here