Development seems to be a scary word if you utter it in Thousand Oaks. I picture movie posters of old, where Godzilla is replaced with a 4-story mixed-use development and people are running away from it screaming in hysteria rivaling Oscar worthy performances.
I keep hearing people say, “We are turning into the San Fernando Valley!” It’s frankly an absurd statement. Thousand Oaks is not in a building frenzy. For example, in the 10 years since the Boulevard Specific Plan has been put in place, only 180 units have been developed. And, as far as the conversations related to the land use map portion of the General Plan update, less than 3% of the entire city was facing potential areas of change.
Further, even if we added another 10,000 to 20,000 people over the next 25 years, our population will remain under 150,000 across 55 square miles. Under no scenario, facts, measures, and/or wildest figments of our imagination can/will Thousand Oaks become anything like the San Fernando Valley, which has 6,500 residents within a square mile.
In listening to the public comments and observing online conversations, I realized there are a lot of us who have no idea how the heck any sort of development happens/gets approved in our city (me included.)
So, I reached out to a local TO Blvd business owner (Oak & Iron, woot woot) and former planning commissioner for the city, Drew Pletcher, to have him give us the high-level insight on the general process. Thank you Drew for helping break down this complex process into something we can more easily digest.
How major development projects get greenlit in Thousand Oaks*
*Only projects that involve housing units will need to go through this entire process. A pure commercial or pure industrial property would just skip to #4 on the list.
** Update a/o 1 p.m., 5/28/2021 per City employee who weighed in:
The process outlined by Mr. Pletcher has been revised a little but the general structure remains the same. Where residential units are involved, a Residential Capacity Allocation (RCA) is brought before Council even before a Pre-Application is submitted. This is a process whereby the Council reviews the proposed development conceptually and approves a maximum number of units for the development. This is done with consideration to zoning, allowed density, and density bonus opportunities. Then a Pre-Application can be filed and the official application follows. It’s a lot of time and money in very early stages of development conception allowing for rigorous city review.
General Q&A About the Process
What’s the difference between a pre-application and an application?
The pre-application/pre-screen process is very high level. During this phase, it’s more conceptual and the full design may not be fleshed out 100% at this point. If a project moves forward through the pre-screening process, it is then, usually, that the investment will be made to fully develop out the design, which is then submitted in a formal application.
What does the pre-screening process consist of?
There is a pre-screening checklist that city staff uses to review any pre-applications to provide recommendations to city council. Prescreen concepts are evaluated according to criteria previously defined by city council (Resolution 2018-015). Categories of criteria include:
a) suitability of the site
b) quality of design
c) provision of Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) units
d) community benefits.
In addition, projects within the downtown area are evaluated in the context of the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Specific Plan (TOBSP). That being said, it’s clear after last night’s meeting that the TOBSP will be amended based on the General Plan.
Who conducts the environmental review and does the developer foot this bill?
The developer foots the bill for the environmental study and can pick who they would like to conduct it. However, the study has to be performed to the state’s standard for environmental studies and city staff will review to ensure it is done correctly. Based on the complexity of the project and the associated or potential difficulties of development, the environmental study can range from a full environmental impact review to a smaller review of areas for mitigation based on potential damages to the environment. The latter review process is known as a mitigated negative declaration.
What’s that? A mitigated negative declaration is a negative declaration that incorporates revisions and/or mitigation measures in the proposed project that will avoid or mitigate impacts to a point where clearly no significant impacts on the environment would occur. And, that there is no substantial evidence in light of the whole record before the public agency that the project, as revised, may have a significant impact on the environment.
For projects that are expected to have a more significant impact to the environment, a full environmental impact study must be completed.
When we talk about “city staff,” what roles comprise the city staff that are involved in this decision-making process?
1. City Planner – Typically one city planner is assigned to oversee the project, as well as the environment aspects of the project.
2. Housing Expert - For insight related to affordable housing component, a city staff member in housing would provide this input.
3. Public Works/Traffic Engineer – These engineers are the support staff that work to provide the traffic study and ensure it fits the city’s model and meets its designated thresholds.
4. Public Works/City Engineers – The engineers handle any engineering issues related to grating/soil/environment, in coordination with the city planner
To be clear, this is a multi-person process. The developer covers most, if not all, staff fees related to staff time for this process.
What happens after the studies are completed?
It’s generally pretty clear before studies are finished if the project will not pass muster. If it makes it through the process, all of the information is collected into a staff-prepared report written by the city planner and is then approved by the city staff team who has been working on the development evaluation. That report is then provided to the planning commission. Then the vote takes place.
How is this process impacted by housing laws?
There are a lot of them, but let’s take a look at three of them:
SB 330 (Skinner) – Housing Crisis Act of 2019 includes a number of new procedural protections, including the following:
TL;DR: Once a project passed the pre-screening process, the city’s control on the outcome of the project is drastically reduced … so the pre-screening process is important and has to account for a lot of the potential factors of a project upfront, since the city is restricted in what it can change after the pre-screening phase.
SB 35 (Affordable Housing Streamlined Approval) which became effective in 2018, applies in cities that are not meeting their Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) goal for construction of above-moderate income housing and/or housing for households below 80% area median income (AMI). SB-35 amends Government Code Section 65913.4 to require local entities to streamline the approval of certain housing projects by providing a ministerial approval process.
What does this mean?
Basically, this bill requires any community not meeting State-mandated housing goals to adopt objective and quantifiable standards that make it clear and predictable for housing to be designed and approved, and that those projects be exempt from any discretionary review. Design review can still occur but it must be “…objective and strictly focused on assessing compliance with criteria, … objective design standards…” In addition, depending on the situation, the city has between 90 and 180 days to approve the project or state how it doesn’t comply with your standards, or the project moves forward.
AB 3194 (Housing Accountability Act Amendments)
The Housing Accountability Act, which is part of the Planning and Zoning Law, prohibits a local agency from disapproving, or conditioning approval in a manner that renders infeasible, a housing development project for very low, low-, or moderate-income households or an emergency shelter unless the local agency makes specified written findings, based upon a preponderance of the evidence, that one or more conditions exist, including that the housing development project or emergency shelter would have a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety, as specified.
Huh? Basically, It limits a city’s ability to reject or restrict housing if it’s in compliance with objective General Plan and zoning standards.
Another component of this act: Subjective standards for approval like "pleasant, suitable, preferred, consistent with community standards" are out. Objective standards like "rock, brick, used brick, wood" are allowed. Interesting stuff!
What about Measure E? How does that factor in?
This excerpt via the Acorn helps explain:
Because of Measure E, Thousand Oaks’ 1997 voter-approved growth-control measure, the city’s general plan cannot increase total residential capacity beyond what was allowed in 1996 without a vote of the people. According to an internal 2017 city study that accounted for every parcel in the city regardless of topography or existing conditions, that figure is around 81,000. Around 48,000 units exist today.
To allow more housing without running afoul of Measure E, the city proposes transferring around 22,000 units from existing single-family neighborhoods to the four areas of change, resulting in a net-zero capacity change on the land-use map but in reality clearing a pathway to new development.
What’s the Density Bonus About?
You may have noticed that the council voted to reduce mixed-use medium to mixed-use low, citywide. I want to touch on this as well and how the density bonus law impacts this.
According to Government Code: Title 7. Planning and Land Use, Division 1. Planning and Zoning, Chapter 4.3 Density Bonuses and Other Incentives, section 65915 :
"(f) For the purposes of this chapter, “density bonus” means a density increase over the otherwise maximum allowable gross residential density as of the date of application by the applicant to the city, county, or city and county, or, if elected by the applicant, a lesser percentage of density increase, including, but not limited to, no increase in density. The amount of density increase to which the applicant is entitled shall vary according to the amount by which the percentage of affordable housing units exceeds the percentage established in subdivision.”
Based on the density bonus requirements set forth in AB 2345, property owners CAN ask for variances in density based on if their proposal meets the state’s requirements. If it does meet the criteria, neither the city council (during the pre-screening process) or the planning commission (during the final review) are in a position to reject the density variance request. The density bonus request may come up during the pre-screening process, but it may also be revisited during the planning commission review of the property, if numbers have changed after the design is finalized.
How much density you talking about?
It’s important to note that as of 2021 under the new AB 2345 state law reference in my previous paragraph, residential projects in California with on-site affordable housing can get a density bonus of up to 50%. Previously, under Government Code Section 65915—commonly known as the Density Bonus Law—the maximum bonus was 35%. It is available for projects that include 11% very low income below market rate (“BMR”) units, 20% low income BMRs, or 40% moderate income BMRs. Under a new law that flew somewhat under the radar during the last legislative session in Sacramento, a 50% bonus is available with increased affordability. Specifically, 15% very low income, 24% low income, or 44% moderate income allow the full 50% bonus. (Source)
On a separate note, I want to circle back to the land use map vote last night. While the city council has made its vote on recommended density zoning, city staff will now spend the next year performing environmental and traffic studies related to the proposed areas of change to determine whether or not the zoning recommendations are viable. And then, in 2022, it will be officially approved at that time, based on staff recommendations and city council vote.
And, to reiterate, the process last night was not a process approving development, it was a process approve land use designations. In listening to the comments, it was clear to me that many people in our community were under the impression that this vote was guaranteeing development, which is not the case. Any proposed developments in our city must follow the process described above.