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San Ramon density talks continue at joint meeting

Specific plan amendment expected to head to commission Aug. 29

Density talks continued Tuesday night, in the second installment of discussion with the Planning Commission and City Council on the city's proposed amendment to reduce the housing density limits in western Crow Canyon.

The proposed amendment would reduce the maximum number of dwelling units per acre within the Crow Canyon Specific Plan (CCSP), an area that covers 130 acres and is bounded by the San Ramon city limit line to the north, Interstate 680 to the east, Crow Canyon Road to the south and the San Ramon city limit line to the west.

Currently, the residential density range for the area is 22-50 dwelling units per acre, but the amendment would reduce that to 22-35. According to acting division manager Lauren Barr, the idea came about because the city had been receiving a large number of conceptual review applications in the area with a higher density than was anticipated. This was at least in part due to the California state density bonus law, which allows developers to construct a higher project density in exchange for designating a certain percentage of their units as affordable.

Government code stipulates that a specific plan amendment is subject to the same public hearing and approval process as general plan amendments, meaning that the amendment must go through at least three public hearings before the Planning commission and city council, pass by the planning commission by a 4/5 vote and then be adopted by the city council with a 4/5 vote in favor of it.

This was the second public hearing, the first taking place on July 25.

Of the 130 acres in the CCSP, 41 can be used for housing development, though none are specifically designated as residential.

If the amendment is passed, the unit cap on the entire CCSP area would remain constant at 735 units. Therefore, this amendment essentially affects how dwelling units are dispersed throughout the 41 acres, limiting the density on individual parcels and developments.

During the public hearing on Tuesday, resident Jim Blickenstaff came forward to commend the council for crafting the proposed amendment, and taking into account residents' "quality of life."

"Reducing that range is an appropriate reaction to state pressures," he said.

Three stakeholders from the Golden Skate apartments, which has a pending development application at 2701 Hoover Drive, also spoke, asking officials to exempt their project from the amendment's new limits, should it pass.

Developer Blake Peters said that they wouldn't financially be able to include the number of affordable units they did if they had to abide by the density reduction. At present, their design allows for 20% affordable units.

"We think (this) is a way of bypassing the state density bonus law, and we use that as a critical way of subsidizing the affordable, by-the-market rate," Peters said. "So that being said, we're certainly against it, overall and as a bad precedent for other cities. For us, this project is all the way through the planning process at this point. We’d have to scrap the entire project, and we couldn’t do it as an 80-20 (20% affordable), if at this point we were down-zoned."

After the public hearing, the council and planning commission moved into the discussion portion of the meeting, which wasn't extensive, though they did raise some questions regarding their own powers of discretion and about the Golden Skate project.

Commissioner Jeanne Benedetti asked city attorney Bob Saxe whether Golden Skate's current plan was deemed complete, and how the density reduction would affect their development should the amendment pass.

Saxe replied that for Golden Skate to be vested, it would need to be deemed complete at the time the amendment went into effect.

However, he said it wasn't uncommon for a city council or a board of supervisors to make adjustments depending on a specific situation. "You could establish as the vesting date, a date prior to the time that applications are deemed complete," Saxe said.

Mayor Bill Clarkson asked about the discretion of city officials, if they could limit individual projects' density to 22 units per acre if need be.

Debbie replied that because of the density bonus law, "discretion is limited."

The planning commission will continue the discussion on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m.

State density bonus

The California state density bonus law was originally enacted as a way to incentivize developers to build affordable and market-rate housing in the state.

In order to qualify for a bonus, a project needs to fall under at least one of the following categories: 10% of the total units are for lower-income households, 5% are for very low-income households, it provides senior citizen housing, 10% are in a common interest development (like condominiums or townhouses) for moderate-income households, 10% are for transitional foster youth, disabled veterans or homeless individuals.

These numbers are all calculated from the base number of units before the density bonus is applied.

The bonus number of units a projects can include is on a sliding scale; the more units a developer designates as affordable, the more units they can build, up to a maximum of 35% of the base units. And developers are also eligible for 1-3 concessions depending on the allocated number of affordable units.

For example, with the Golden Skate apartments, developers originally designated 46 units for very-low income households, 27.2% of the baseline 169 units.

"The State Law grants a density bonus of up to 35% of the baseline units allowed by zoning in exchange for providing a minimum of 15% of the baseline units for very-low income households (50% Area Median Income) and up to three concessions or incentives on the development standards," wrote associate planner Shinei Tsukamoto in a June staff report.

So the Golden Skate project qualified for the maximum, as its 46 very-low income units exceeded 15% of the baseline units. Thus, they were permitted to construct an additional 60 units -- 35% of their baseline amount.

The Crow Canyon Specific Plan has an affordability requirement of its own, the Workforce Housing Policy of the CCSP, which stipulates that developments allocate at least 25% of the baseline total for low-income households. The Golden Skate apartments would then meet this requirement as well.

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