As the update to our zoning ordinance winds its way through the review process, arriving at City Council for public hearing on Aug. 21, it’s a good time to reflect on how zoning can support — or hinder — the values we share as a community, including knowing our neighbors, connecting with the outdoors, supporting all families, embracing arts and culture and honoring our history.
Zoning is a local tool communities use to control land use. Historically, zoning was a good way to keep dirty factories, for example, away from residences.
Zoning also dictates set-backs, lot coverage, height and more. Zoning is meant to align with the community’s values, goals and vision, which is captured in an overarching document called the General Plan. California requires every city to have a General Plan, with specific chapters called elements.
Four years ago, after a three-year public process, the city of San Luis Obispo updated the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE). We also updated the Housing Element in 2014. These changes have triggered the zoning update.
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Before getting to the values part of a zoning update, there are some important legal and economic considerations. For one, the Housing Element, and therefore the zoning code, must reflect (cue dramatic music) the Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA, or “reena”).
The state performs massive calculations to figure out how much housing is needed in California, then allocates a number of housing units to each county, called its RHNA. The cities and the county divide up the allocation based on a formula intended to house people closer to jobs. Cities and counties then update their housing elements and, by law, they must show that their zoning will accommodate that amount of housing. In other words, we are required to accommodate our fair share of population growth.
Of course, local government doesn’t build housing. We only figure out where it could go; builders and developers build housing, dependent on demand, financing and so on. But once a community lays down what is allowed, the owner has property rights and makes investment decisions based on that zoning. There also is a variety of recent state laws that limit city discretion to deny, reduce or otherwise keep housing from being built once land is zoned for housing.
Another key consideration in zoning is that housing is usually a financial drain on cities. Because of restrictions on property tax rates passed in 1978 under Proposition 13, property tax received from residences is not enough to cover the services a city provides — police, fire, roads, parks etc.
To have a balanced budget and provide those services, a city generates other income, including business and sales tax and transit occupancy tax (“bed tax”) for hotel stays. A General Plan, and the corollary zoning code, must be financially balanced, designating enough commercial area to generate revenue to offset the housing.
This is a long way of saying that much of our zoning is about where to accommodate growth, not whether or not we grow.
The rate of population growth in our General Plan is moderate, 1 percent per year on average, and has a cap of 57,200 around 2030. It feels like a lot of growth right now since several projects stalled out during the recession and are now coming on line at the same time, but the rate of growth is still within our well-established policies so that growth is deliberate and measured and supports our General Plan vision.
Back to zoning and our values: In San Luis Obispo, we are fortunate to have a diverse, thriving economy, but in earlier years we encouraged business growth while being a little stingy with housing. We made great investments during that time, including open space, Mission Plaza and a secure water supply, but we also ended up with an influx of commuters and inflated housing prices. During the recent General Plan update, keeping the above considerations in mind, we laid out a vision for our city. We want to preserve agriculture and open space, so we’ll allow smaller units, more height and housing in more locations throughout town.
We recognize that more people could mean more cars, so we’ll provide better options for walking, biking and using transit. We cherish our downtown and we know that visitors and full-time residents downtown will help it to thrive, so we’ll preserve historic buildings, cluster cultural activities and balance trees and views with increased building height in strategic locations. We applaud the success of Cal Poly, and we’ll support their plans to house more students on campus.
We support all families, so we’ll create new neighborhoods and add small infill in established neighborhoods, because we know a community is stronger when people live where they work. This vision will help our city be sustainable in the future while preserving the character and charm we love.
Zoning code is a tool; using that tool to reflect our values is up to us.
Andy Pease is a member of the San Luis Obispo City Council.