SB9 is Finally Here. What Can City and County Do About It?
Senate Bill 9 (aka SB9), which we’ve been reporting on since early 2021, goes into effect this week, with local governments across California scrambling to implement ordinances to attempt to protect, as much as possible, single-family zoning in residential neighborhoods.
SB9 was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2021 and became effective January 1, 2022. The controversial bill is in response to Newsom’s goal to add millions of housing units in California; SB9 allows the building of multi-family housing units in single-family residential zones, via ministerial approvals only, which opponents fear could lead to a gross over-development in neighborhoods throughout California.
In addition to drastically reducing the red tape to build multiple units on a property, SB9 also allows lot splitting, potentially enticing developers to buy properties, demolish them, and build new housing units. SB9 does not require that improvements be made to local infrastructure to accommodate more residents, including water and sewer infrastructure, law enforcement and school capacity, road infrastructure, and more. These projects are also exempt from CEQA, which means no environmental review is required.
Fearing that developers would be incentivized to buy properties in Montecito at an elevated price, and tear them down in order to build multiple units, the Montecito Association in early 2021 hired former State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson as a legislative analyst and advocate to help defeat the bill, and others making their way down the pipeline. The MA, led by Executive Director Sharon Byrne, maintains that SB9, in addition to failing to address the issue of affordable housing for which it was created, also poses great fire risk to our community, ignores the issue of future debris flows, and reduces open space in the community.
“We have numerous options for adding housing without irreversibly ruining existing neighborhoods. SB9 creates more problems and doesn’t provide for what is truly needed: affordablehousing. We really want to encourage creative thinking to provide for this urgent need, rather than engaging in a cookie-cutter approach and trickle-down economics in the hope that prescribing higher densities in the single-family zone districts will win this fight for housing,” reads a letter that was sent to State Senator Monique Limón in an effort to defeat the bill.
Ultimately the attempt to defeat SB9 failed, and now locally, the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta have adopted emergency ordinances to implement objective standards that will potentially lessen SB9’s impacts. The bill was discussed at the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission hearing in early December, but no action was taken. It’s expected that Montecito Planning Commission will take up the issue at their first hearing of the year on January 19. It is estimated that 24,000 properties in unincorporated Santa Barbara County could take advantage of SB9, according to County Planner Jessica Steele.
“The state’s intent was to override local government. It’s the wild wild west right now,” Byrne said.
As written, the state law allows for lot splitting of properties in single-family zones, with a minimum of 1,200 square feet and no less than 40% of the original lot size. Two residential units (minimum 800 square feet, each) could then be built on each lot; the units could be a duplex or two separate homes and require only a four-foot setback. Units built under SB9 are exempt from Montecito’s Growth Management Ordinance, which limits the number of new homes built in the Montecito Planning Area.
An SB9 urban lot split, followed by the building of two units on each lot, essentially results in a four-unit dwelling on what was once a single-family property. There are some qualifying criteria: the lot to be split cannot be or contain an historic landmark or be within a designated historic district; the split cannot involve the demolition of affordable housing, or housing occupied by a tenant; the original lot cannot have been established through a previous SB9 lot split; two consecutive lots owned by the same owner cannot both be split; among other criteria.
Units built under SB9 may not be used for short-term rentals (less than 30 days), and there is an owner-occupied requirement that the owner developing the property must live in one of the units for three years, although it’s unclear how that element will be enforced. Under SB9, local jurisdictions may only impose objective zoning standards, objective subdivision standards, and objective design standards on an eligible project, and only to the extent that the standards do not physically preclude the construction of two units of at least 800 square feet.
The cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta have both implemented objective standards via emergency ordinances. These standards include prohibiting SB9 building in very high fire zones, mandating that at least one of the units be used for “affordable” housing (a yearly income of $70,000 or less), requiring that there be one off-street parking space available per unit, and setting very high impact fees before permits are issued. Goleta also added a provision that only an individual homeowner could apply for an SB9 permit, and not a corporation, as a way to weed out developers.
Adding more units and therefore residents to high fire areas could wreak havoc on emergency evacuation planning; Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor is expected to present a new evacuation study in the coming months. SB9 could also pose insurance issues for owners. If Montecito were to implement objective standards prohibiting SB9 building in very high fire zones, the number of parcels eligible to build under this bill would be significantly reduced.
“If the county follows the city’s lead, it could lead to ineligibility for parcels above Highway 192,” Byrne told us earlier this week.
The Montecito Association, working with several other agencies across the state, is helping to see to it that a ballot initiative will be on the November ballot, which would give building control back to local jurisdictions, essentially making SB9 optional. Byrne, along with several concerned Montecito residents, have been busy helping to gather signatures to ensure the initiative is on the ballot; over 800 signatures have been collected in Montecito alone. For more information, visit www.ourneighborhoodvoices.com or email email@example.com.
It is expected that SB9 will cause litigation across the state in the coming months, as local jurisdictions attempt to adhere to the new bill while implementing their own objective standards. The Montecito Association continues to lead the charge on lessening the bill’s impacts on the semi-rural ambiance of Montecito. For more information, visit www.montecitoassociation.org.
Kelly, also a licensed realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, has been editor at large for the Journal since 2007, reporting on news in Montecito and beyond.