Editorial: County’s multi-family land needs better protection

How’s this for a switch? A developer’s application for a housing project is denied — not because he wants to pack in too many units — but because his project is not dense enough.

That’s the situation in Templeton, where an application is pending to convert the livestock auction yard at 221 Main St. into a residential subdivision, by building 108 single-family homes on nearly 17 acres.

Because the land is zoned multi-family residential, the county Planning Department recommended against allowing single-family homes there. The Planning Commission agreed and denied the project, setting the stage for the county Board of Supervisors to weigh in; it will hear the case on appeal in February.

We share the concerns raised by planners. We’ve long been opposed to the county’s penchant to squander land zoned for multi-family use by allowing single-family homes or — even worse — mini-storage units to be built on such property.

We wonder: What’s the point of zoning land multi-family, if most of it winds up developed as single-family homes?

Certainly, we need single-family homes, particularly units on smaller lots such as those proposed in the Templeton project.

But there’s also a great need for less expensive condos, as well as duplexes and apartments.

Consider: Even with the drop in housing prices over the past couple of years, only around 50 percent of families could afford an entry-level house, according to the California Association of Realtors. That’s much improved, but it still shows that many families are priced out of the market.

And the rental picture isn’t much better; the median monthly rent in the county was $1,114 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In its recently updated housing plan, the county estimates it will need nearly 200 additional units for low- and very low-income families by 2014.

Clearly, the county needs to encourage construction of more multi-family units.

It does have a written policy to “protect the existing supply of multi-family land.” Good idea, but decision makers have the discretion to override it and have repeatedly done so in the past.

That must stop. The county must make it the rule — rather than an exception — to preserve multi-family land for higher densities.

That would encourage development of affordable units, and give property owners and developers a clear signal as to how their applications will be handled. It also would let current and potential residents of an area know what to expect in the future.

That’s important, as the Templeton project illustrates. In that case, some residents told the Planning Commission they had no idea that multi-family housing might be built near them when they moved into the neighborhood.

Others objected that even the 108 single family homes proposed for the site already push the limits of what the area can support.

Given the controversial history, perhaps the best outcome we can hope for is a reasonable compromise that allows a mix of single-family and attached units.

We also like the Planning Department’s suggestion of clustering units on one area of the property and reserving the rest of the land for future development.

Moving forward, the county’s overarching goal of its housing plan — “To achieve an adequate supply of safe and decent housing that is affordable to all residents” — is a noble one. But it won’t be achieved through wimpy, discretionary policies that make it far too easy for elected officials to crumble in the face of NIMBYism.

We urge the county to find a way to put some teeth in its policy for preserving multi-family land for its intended use before it’s too late.