A Novel Defense Against State-Mandated Density: Mountain Lions

Woodside, a small town in the South Bay Area of California, has invented a new method for resisting state-mandated zoning reforms.

2 minute read

February 3, 2022, 10:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

A map showing the location of Woodside, California and its surrounding roads.

SevenMaps / Shutterstock

Angela Swartz reports from Woodside, California, a town of 5,500 people in the South Bay Area, about the city's plans to reject the state's new zoning law, Senate Bill 9. Woodside's reason for avoiding state mandated density: the entire town is mountain lion habitat.

Planetizen readers know the beginning of this story: SB 9, approved in September 2021 before going into effect at the beginning of the year, allows residential property owners throughout the state to split their properties and build up to four residential units. With the law, California followed Oregon as the second state to preempt local zoning laws by mandating the end of single-family zoning. Local jurisdictions are taking similar actions, led by the city of Minneapolis in 2019 and followed by a wave of cities like Charlotte, Berkeley, and Sacramento, to name a few examples from 2021.

Cities in both Oregon and California have already been getting creative in resisting the new state preemption—using the tools of historic preservation, for example—but the city of Woodside chose a different route.

According to Swartz:

Town officials found a clause in the law that prohibits development in areas identified as habitats for protected species. Mountain lions are a protected species because they are a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act and Woodside, in "its entirety" is a mountain lion habitat, according to a Jan. 27 memo from Town Planning Director Jackie Young. 

Swartz also provides background on the town's development politics and notes that the city is facing the prospect of needing to zoned capacity for 358 units between 2023 and 2031 under the state's Regional Housing Needs Allocation process. The town is currently updating its Housing Element.

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