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At a recent meeting and study session, the Windsor Town Council and the planning commission focused their attention on the creation of objective design standards for their town. But other municipalities in Sonoma County would do well to follow their discussions, because thanks to a 2018 state law, every town may soon be having to create similar standards.

State Legislation

California State Senate Bill 35, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, was part of a housing package aimed at addressing the state’s crippling housing shortage and related high costs. SB 35 requires the availability of a streamlined ministerial approval process for multifamily residential developments in jurisdictions that have not yet made sufficient progress toward meeting their regional housing need allocation (RHNA).

In other words, if cities aren’t hitting their RHNA numbers, they’re required to create a process for multifamily units to be approved without coming before the planning commissions or town/city councils for approval. As long the project falls within the objective standards, it will be automatically approved.

According to SB 35, a town, city or county must establish a “by-right” multifamily residential development process. If a project complies with the objective design standards — as well as all zoning and other related requirements — the project must be approved through a staff-level administrative process with no public review or hearing. For a project to be eligible under SB 35, it must meet the following criteria: provide a level of affordability; be located on an infill site; meet wage requirements; comply with general plan and zoning provisions; and comply with locational and demolition restrictions.

However, if an applicant prefers project design features that vary from the objective standards, they would still have the option to seek approval through a discretionary review process.

To read the full text of SB 35 click here.


What is an objective design standard?

SB 35 defines an objective design standard as one that involves "no personal or subjective judgment by a public official and is uniformly verifiable by reference to an external and uniform benchmark or criterion available and knowable by both the development applicant ... and the public official prior to submittal."

In the planning and development realm, there is an important distinction between development standards and design standards. While each inevitably play a large role in the overall look and feel of a structure, they have historically been treated and enforced differently.

Development standards are regulations pertaining to the physical modification of a structure or development, including the size and location of structures in relation to the lot. Development standards include maximum height of structures, minimum lot area, minimum setbacks, maximum lot coverage, maximum floor area ratio, view corridors and open space. By nature, these standards are objective because they establish standards that are verifiable by reference to known criteria (e.g., maximum lot size: 5,000 square feet, Maximum height: 35 feet). In most places, development standards are primarily established in a zoning ordinance.

Design standards provide guidance for staff and applicants and when used in conjunction with the zoning provide a common basis for the evaluation of design during the project approval process. They regulate a multitude of design features including lighting, articulation, building materials, color, fenestration, roof design and building massing.

SB 35 also creates required time frames for the ministerial review. Project review must be completed within 90 days for 150 or fewer units and 180 days for projects with more than 150 units, measured from the date the application is submitted.  

In addition, it’s important to remember that not only will the projects not be subject to any review from a council or planning commission, they also are not subject to any noticing requirements or input from neighbors or residents.

Generally speaking, there will not be any public meetings or hearings about these projects. In addition, these projects are also exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

However, they must still conform with zoning rules and guidelines.

At the Feb. 2018 Association of Bay Area Governments Planning innovations forum, Barbara Kautz of Goldfarb & Lipman gave a presentation on “Planning Innovations How Objective is Objective?”

In it, Kautz pointed out that projects must be consistent with ‘objective’ zoning and design review standards, including consistency with zoning if consistent with maximum density in general plan, without consideration of maximum unit allocation and density bonuses are consistent. General plan standards will trump inconsistent zoning standards under SB 35.

Objective design standards in Sonoma County

Windsor is still in process of creating its standards and is able to do so thanks to a $160,000 grant it received in 2019 from the California Department of Housing and Community Development SB 2 Planning Grants Program. Santa Rosa was quicker on the draw and has been operating under objective design standards since 2019. Since that time, Santa Rosa has completed three projects.

But if you don’t live in Windsor and you don’t live in Santa Rosa, how might this impact your city?

Because the requirement to create those standards and offer this ministerial process is tied directly to any agency’s ability to meet its RHNA numbers — something no place in Sonoma County has done in years. And, with a new RHNA cycle right around the corner, bringing with it even higher allocations, it seems unlikely that most places will be hitting the numbers with enough regularity to stave off the requirements of SB 35.

During Windsor’s discussion, the issue of no requirement to inform or engage with neighbors of potential proved to be of concern to council members.

“How are the public going to be noticed? We promised we would over notice, but if this is approved by staff will they still be noticed? And what is their process for submitting comments,” asked Windsor Councilmember Debora Fudge. 

“A project that comes in ministerially under these state regulations can go straight to a building permit,” said Windsor’s community development director Jessica Jones.

At the end of the day, SB 35 focuses on getting housing built quickly and affordably, something that hasn’t been happening in most parts of California and Sonoma County. When cities and counties fall behind when it comes to approving and moving forward housing projects, the state will create additional pathways to create housing. And those pathways, more and more, are removing local control over those projects, as long as they “stay between the lines.”

Author’s note: The information in this story comes from presentations given to the Town of Windsor in relation to objective design standards, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the text of the law.

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