SB 35 project wins legal battle in Los Altos

A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge has ruled against the City of Los Altos, allowing a controversial project to move forward.

In her ruling last week, Judge Helen Williams stated that Los Altos must allow a five-story development to move forward. The 66-foot-tall project, in the city’s downtown section, is a mixed-use development with 15 housing units. Two of the housing units will be for low-income residents.

In 2018, the project developer applied to Los Altos for approval under Senate Bill 35 – SB 35 – process, which allows some projects to get expedited approval if they meet stringent requirements. Los Altos denied the application. A YIMBY-supported group, California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund – known as CaRLA, then sued Los Altos.

Judge Williams ruled that the city’s denial did not meet the standard required by SB 35 to deny a project.

“The Court holds that the Developer’s project was deemed to comply with applicable standards under SB 35 and that the City must rescind its decision to deny and instead approve and permit the project at the requested density,” Williams wrote in her ruling

“What’s more, there is no explanation in the denial letter about how the proposal was inconsistent with the unspecified standards applied by the City,” the ruling continued.

Los Altos officials noted their displeasure at the ruling. They have not commented on if they plan to appeal to a higher court.

“Of course, the city is very disappointed with the judge’s decision, but we will not comment further until after the city council has the opportunity to discuss the decision,” said Los Altos City spokeswoman Sonia Lee told the Mercury News in a statement.

Implications for Cupertino’s SB 35 Project

It is unclear at this point what impact the ruling will have on other SB 35 litigation cases in California.

Ryan Patterson, an attorney with Zacks Freedman & Patterson, which represented CaRLA in the Los Altos case, told the Mercury News, “It means that there will probably be more affordable housing proposed, or projects including more affordable housing, and they’ll be approved. It’s a cautionary tale for any city that might consider denying a project on technicalities.”

Notably, Williams is also the presiding judge on the Vallco Town Center redevelopment litigation. In that case, local anti-growth group Friends of Better Cupertino is suing Cupertino’s approval of the project under SB 35.

The Vallco Town Center redevelopment is a mixed-use project that, when finished would feature 2,402 residential units – including more than 1,200 at affordable levels. Demolition at Vallco is well underway, including recent removal of the bridge over Wolfe Road.

William’s ruling on that project is expected in coming weeks or months, following a delay due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.