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Trial Over San Francisco Waterfront Development Height Limits Begins

The State Lands Commission filed suit shortly after San Francisco voters approved Prop. B in June 2014, requiring waterfront developments exceeding height limits to obtain voter approval rather than go through the Planning Commission process.
January 15, 2018, 8am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Barely a month after San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved a citizens' ballot box zoning initiative known as Proposition B that empowered voters on waterfront developments, the State Lands Commision, which manages public lands in the state, including the waterfront, filed suit, "arguing that the lands belong to the state and are managed by the Port Commission, not the city and its voters," reported Bob Egelko for the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to the Lands Commission suit, the shoreline consists of tidelands that California obtained as state property when it became a state in 1850. The state transferred the land to the city in a 1968 law that specified it would be managed by the autonomous Port Commission and not by city officials or voters, the suit said.

The trial began Wednesday, Jan. 10, reports Michael Barba, who covers planning for the San Francisco Examiner, and should run through Jan. 16, according to Deputy City Attorney Christine Van Aken with the City Attorney's office who is defending Prop. B. "San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos must now decide whether to invalidate Prop. B."

By forcing developers to gain approval at the polls, Joel Jacobs, a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice, said Prop. B makes projects more expensive for developers and as a result less lucrative for the San Francisco Port, which is charged with acting in the interests of California as the trustee of the waterfront.

Proposition B created a “flawed decision-making system” when it gave voters reign over waterfront height limits in 2014, said Jacobs.

Jon Golinger, a political consultant who has run campaigns against developments on the waterfront, took issue with that assertion.

“They are attempting to put the very notion that citizens in California have a right to govern themselves on trial,” he said.

Broader political implications?

At first glance, the litigation appears to be a strictly local matter, whether voters should have a say on waterfront development height limits. However, the Lands Commission is chaired by none other than Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who is running this year to replace the termed-out Jerry Brown for governor.

"For Newsom, whose record usually wins praise from environmentalists, the court battle against the Sierra Club, which promoted Prop. B is awkward," reported Michael Finnegan, a Los Angeles Times politics writer, on May 19, 2017.

“I think it’s a stab in the back of the city he once governed,” said Becky Evans, chair of the chapter's San Francisco Group of the Sierra Club Bay Chapter, about the former San Francisco mayor.

The lawsuit has also opened Newsom to accusations that he disrespects one of California’s most cherished political customs: initiative and referendum.

However, Finnegan also notes that when the suit against San Francisco was filed in July 2014, State Treasurer John Chiang, one of Newsom’s rivals in the 2018 governor’s race, was chairman of the Lands Commission.

For more background on the proposition and lawsuit, see tag, "Prop B."

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Published on Thursday, January 11, 2018 in San Francisco Examiner
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