A mountain lion in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
(Via Sebastian Kennerknecht)
Places

Wealthy town has an answer against building affordable housing: Mountain lions

The wealthy Silicon Valley suburb of Woodside is trying to block Senate Bill 9, a new state law allowing duplexes on single-family home lots, by declaring itself a mountain lion habitat.

The well-heeled Silicon Valley suburb of Woodside has come up with a novel way to block plans that would potentially bring in more affordable housing: Declare itself Cougar Town.

Last week, officials in the enclave of 5,500 people announced that all of Woodside was exempt from a new state housing law that allows for duplex development on single-family home lots.

The reason? The entire town is habitat for potentially endangered mountain lions.

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Woodside’s decision drew quick scorn as a brazen attempt to evade even minimally denser development in one of California’s most exclusive locales. The bucolic, woodsy town near Stanford University and the heart of Silicon Valley has a median home value of $4.5 million. Among its residents have been the founders of technology giants Intuit, Intel and Symantec as well as Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who reportedly spent $200 million to build a Japanese-style 16th-century imperial palace across 23 acres.

The mountain lion card is not playing well with advocates, who note the jarring irony of enormous mansions inhabited by few juxtaposed against the housing needs of many.

“Right now, you could have five people in a 5,000-square-foot mansion sharing one kitchen and it’s OK,” said Sonja Trauss, executive director of YIMBY Law, a San Francisco group that advocates for local governments to approve more housing. “But once you have two kitchens, it’s suddenly a problem for the mountain lions?”

Should ritzy Woodside’s gambit work, a huge swath of the state, including many of its largest cities, could be off-limits for building duplexes on single-family home lots. All of coastal California south of San Francisco, including the entirety of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, would be considered mountain lion habitat under the application for endangered species status California wildlife regulators are now considering.

The prospect of creating more affordable housing has long spurred strongly negative reactions in some California communities.

There was Folsom, which almost 20 years ago tried to count the beds in Folsom Prison — the infamous muse of a Johnny Cash classic — toward the state’s low-income housing targets.

College towns have attempted to do the same with student dorms. And then there was La Habra Heights, in Los Angeles County, which asked to be exempted from planning for affordable housing because the city claimed it was too hilly for apartments.

None of those efforts succeeded. But numerous cities have previously satisfied state affordable housing requirements through plans that they freely admit they’ll ignore when it comes time to approve actual development.

The new state law, Senate Bill 9, generally allows property owners of single-family parcels to build duplexes and, in some cases, fourplexes on their land. But lawmakers gave local governments discretion to add parking requirements or size limitations, among other restrictions.

Around 40 cities have passed new rules limiting projects since the law went into effect on Jan. 1, according to a tally from Trauss’ group. Some she believed were innocuous, but others had potentially the same effect of stymying development as Woodside. Los Altos Hills, another small, wealthy Silicon Valley community, for instance, passed an ordinance requiring all developments under the law to plant a hedge of evergreen shrubs along the property line.

Jessica Trounstine, a political science professor at UC Merced who has studied segregation and development in California, said she understands why lawmakers in such a large and diverse state would provide some leeway for communities when passing laws that encourage growth. But she said historically wealthier and whiter areas have used this flexibility to find legal loopholes to block the laws’ intent.

“The problem is the most advantaged communities have the best ability to take advantage of those exemptions,” Trounstine said.

Daniel Yost, a technology lawyer who served on the Woodside Town Council for five years until 2020, said some residents have realized the California dream and are stingy about allowing others to share in even of a fraction of it — if it means bringing in housing for those of more modest means.

“Don’t believe for a second that this is driven by mountain lion habitat concerns,” Yost said. “It is not. It is resistance by some members of the Town Council to do our fair share in meeting housing requirements.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta recently created specialized units to investigate cities that unlawfully deny housing projects or evade state laws. A spokesperson for Bonta’s office declined to comment on Woodside’s efforts. Gustavo Velasquez, director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said his agency was aware of the town’s actions.

“HCD has an accountability unit set up for when local governments appear to be stretching the bounds of creativity to avoid their housing responsibility,” Velasquez said in a statement. “HCD will take the appropriate time to investigate and conclude whether there is a violation of state housing law under HCD’s enforcement authority in this case, as in all cases.”

Woodside officials insist that wildlife preservation is at the heart of their efforts, and that the town’s decision to use exclusions in SB 9 to protect endangered species is legitimate.

“We love animals,” Woodside Mayor Dick Brown told The Almanac local newspaper, which first reported the town’s decision. “Every house that’s built is one more acre taken away from [mountain lions’] habitat. Where are they going to go? Pretty soon we’ll have nothing but asphalt and no animals or birds.”

Brown and other Woodside officials could not be reached for comment by The Times.

Even cougar defenders panned Woodside’s move. Josh Rosenau, a conservation advocate for the Mountain Lion Foundation, said that blanket prohibitions against growth in already developed areas isn’t required by the state’s endangered species laws and doesn’t actually protect pumas.

He said the effort to block more dense homebuilding could have the effect of pushing housing farther into the state’s undeveloped fringes, something that would make things worse for the big cats.

“Concern for mountain lions is not what’s driving that policy because it’s not what any mountain lion expert would recommend doing,” Rosenau said.

Yost said there have been occasional mountain lion sightings in Woodside, including on his street. But he’s unaware of any cougar attacks in the town. Yost said he understood why the town was facing widespread derision after news of its actions became public earlier this week.

But not everyone here agreed with the decision, he said.

“We’re not all like this,” Yost said. “Even with duplexes, there is plenty of space for mountain lions.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.