Our City Council (Council) has recently sent the zoning ordinance that will affect the permitted heights of commercial and residential buildings back to the Planning Commission for further review. This came after a number of discussions within Planning Commission (Commission) meetings and between the Commission and the Council. The Commission has convinced the Council that they can control building heights through planning and design restrictions. We all hope that will occur.
However, an article in the September 6, 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal may have us more concerned about the federal government dictating our building heights than we are about the Commission doing so. It also has me wondering whether Ojai will be at risk with its Cycle 5 Housing Element. New York’s Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino is at odds with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over HUD’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
Westchester County and HUD are clashing “over local zoning that arose from a 2009 settlement…to build 750 affordable-housing units in 31 mostly white communities.” HUD says that “any limits on the size, type, height and density of buildings are ‘restrictive practices’.” HUD wants Westchester to sue its local communities over these common zoning regulations. According to Mr. Astorino, “If HUD can define what constitutes exclusionary practices, then local zoning as it is known today disappears.” Or said another way, whatever any developer wants to build can be built in any town in America.
HUD’s argument is based on the assumption that zoning is discriminatory, that zoning in and of itself restricts who can live where. This is not the truth. Zoning defines what can be built, and says nothing about who will occupy a given space.
Where does this leave Ojai in view of our upcoming 2014-2021 Housing Element Update? Planning and the Council may need to re-think their strategies if HUD can make its decision stick. The logic behind zoning ordinances would appear to be inescapable: they define what can be built and, in a general sense, how it will look. Nothing in the zoning ordinance makes reference to who may or will occupy the buildings. Let’s hope Mr. Astorino will be willing to take HUD to the courts if need be so we won’t have to.