A superrich suburban neighborhood tried to become a mountain lion sanctuary to destroy more affordable housing. It didn’t work.
A wealthy San Francisco suburb will not be allowed to label its entire town as a mountain lion preserve in order to keep more working-class people from moving in.
Local leaders in Woodside, Calif., a Silicon Valley neighborhood that’s home to billionaires like Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison and Charles R. Schwab, passed a memorandum last month to preserve their town as a mountain lion habitat in order to block a new statewide law, SB 9, that allows duplexes on single-family lots in order to increase affordable housing throughout the state.
But that’s not working with California authorities.
“Woodside declared its entire suburban town a mountain lion sanctuary in a deliberate and transparent attempt to avoid complying with SB 9,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta wrote in a letter to notify the town that the move violates state law and must be amended.
After receiving a letter from the attorney general this weekend that threatened further legal action, the town ended its short jaunt into the world of conservation the next day. In a statement on Monday, the council said that the Department of Fish and Wildlife “had advised that the entire Town of Woodside cannot be considered habitat” and that “as such, the Town Council has instructed staff to immediately begin accepting SB 9 applications.”
The actions taken by the town have riled up critics and activists who say that it’s a blatant attempt by the rich to evade the law and keep affordable housing scarce in a state that is in the middle of a homelessness crisis.
“This is so absurd,” Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a housing activist group, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It is an example of the extreme absurd lengths cities will come up with to evade [SB 9].”
Foote pointed out that the town of Woodside allowed Larry Ellison to build a $70 million, 23-acre 10-building compound modeled after a 16th-century Japanese emperor’s palace while banning two-unit home conversions on already developed land.
“You can build a McMansion and that somehow won’t hurt the mountain lion,” Foote told the Chronicle. “But if you build two units, the lions will somehow fall over and die.”
The average value of a Woodside home is $4,458,459, over six times as high as the California median of $734,612, and the median annual income is over $250,000, according to Census Bureau data. Home prices in the town rose by about 15% in value over the past year. Woodside is 85% white, according to Census data.
Residents used evidence of seeing the big cats on their home security cameras to back their decision to designate it a mountain lion preserve, but others thought the sudden designation seemed suspicious.
“I once saw a mountain lion at the zoo in Oakland. But not here? Not here, never,” Woodside resident Vanessa Nell, who’s lived in the community for 11 years, told her local ABC News station. “If anybody else comes into the city and doesn’t belong to these picky groups, they are really rude, these people.”
The Mountain Lion Foundation said that while Woodside does abut and contain a mountain lion habitat, mountain lions don’t typically hang out on mowed lawns in suburban stretches. “A blanket prohibition against adding an additional unit on an already developed parcel anywhere in the town is neither required by the California Endangered Species Act, nor contributing to the protection of mountain lions,” the conservation nonprofit wrote in a statement.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared the state in a housing crisis, and an estimated 150,000 homeless Californians are sleeping in shelters or on the streets. There are 7.1 million Californians living in poverty when housing costs are taken into account. More than half of low-income Californians devote at least half of their paycheck to rent.
“The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California dream for families across the state, and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity,” Newsom said in a statement about SB 9. “Making a meaningful impact on this crisis will take bold investments, strong collaboration across sectors, and political courage from our leaders and communities to do the right thing and build housing for all.”
Woodside is far from the only town that has attempted to come up with creative ways to block the statewide rezoning law. Since its introduction last year, local governments and homeowner groups have opposed the plan, claiming that it crushes single-family zoning.
There have been at least 40 cases in which towns attempted to block or limit SB 9 housing, according to affordable housing advocacy group Yes in My Back Yard Law.
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