“Destroying our city”: Huntington Beach rejects state housing plan

OC city has become poster child in battle over who controls development

Attorney General Rob Bonta and Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland
Attorney General Rob Bonta and Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland (Getty)

Huntington Beach City Council voted on Tuesday against adopting a new Housing Element, the document that serves as a blueprint for every California city’s housing planning and has doubled as the basis for the Orange County city’s bombastic, months-long battle against Sacramento.  

“The method is flawed,” Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Gracey Van Der Mark said during Tuesday night’s discussion. “We’ve been asked to do our fair share and we have no problem doing our fair share, but with fair numbers. … I do not believe the benefits of building outweigh the consequences of destroying our city.” 

Under California law, local jurisdictions are required to update their housing elements on eight-year cycles in accordance with state-determined quotas. Cities that fail to reach state compliance are subject to penalties that include reductions in state funding and the availability of the builder’s remedy, the controversial legal tool that allows developers to bypass local zoning and has set off a frenzy in the state after it burst into prominence last fall. 

For its latest Housing Element update, which was due in the fall of 2021 — the same deadline applied to hundreds of Southern California jurisdictions — the state’s Housing and Community Development (HCD) agency determined Huntington Beach, a city with a current population of around 200,000, must plan for an additional 13,368 units. 

The city submitted one draft version of its plan to HCD last August, which the agency rejected the next month. The city has still not adopted a new draft version, leaving it subject to the penalties associated with noncompliance. 

More pointedly, after voters elected a new conservative counsel majority in December, the new counsel bloc has turned the issue into a highly divisive cause celebre, often arguing that the state housing mandates amount not only to bureaucratic overreach but a kind of existential threat to the beach city’s character and independence.  

“It is fundamental,” Mayor Tony Strickland, who is part of the new conservative bloc, reiterated on Tuesday night, in a heated response to comments from another council member. 

“If we lose this fight, the city that people love here in Huntington Beach — the suburban community that they love — is gone.”

The city’s fight against the state ranks as one of the most high-profile development disputes in California, with potentially major consequences for state housing law. California Attorney General Rob Bonta has already singled out the city multiple times, in harsh terms, for its open defiance of state law, including an explicit ban on builder’s remedy projects, and last month the city and state both filed lawsuits against each other. 

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A federal judge denied the city’s request for an injunction, indicating an uphill legal battle; one argument Huntington Beach has cited, that it should be exempt from certain state laws because of its status as a charter city, has already been rejected in earlier court decisions. 

The council voted 4-3 against adopting the new Housing Element that had been prepared by staff, which would then have been sent to HCD for approval. The opposing bloc ostensibly cited a CEQA-related affiliated legal clause, the Statement of Overriding Considerations — one council member voting in favor of approval referred to it as a technicality — that they argued amounted to a blanket subjugation of environmental interests. 

In a fiery monologue, CouncilmanCasey McKeon, who is leading the council’s fight against Sacramento — and who works as a commercial developer — framed his opposition as a principled stand for free speech. 

“The state is violating our First Amendment rights,” he said, “and forcing our speech to stay that these affordable housing projects are more important than air quality, more important than greenhouse gasses. … Just as I shouldn’t be told who to vote for for president, I won’t be told here by the state how to vote.” 

Councilman Dan Kalmick, the most outspoken member of the minority, argued that a failure to pass the new Housing Element would only bring more severe penalties from the state and was likely to weaken the city’s legal arguments. He also pointed out that in the same meeting the council was going to discuss speeding limits, the guidelines for which are also set by state laws. 

“We pick and choose, apparently, the state laws that we’re going to comply with,” he said. “We are not a sovereign nation of Huntington Beach. We’re a subdivision of the state of California.”  

The council’s discussion came after dozens of emails and public comments on both sides of the Housing Element dispute and the city’s larger fight against the state, which — along with the same council bloc’s initiatives to take down pride flags, among others — has divided the city along political lines. In a sign of how serious the local housing battle has become, one resident referred publicly to the state mandates “as part of a much larger and darker agenda” and “a form of engineered population relocation.” 

“Huntington Beach,” the same resident continued, “is an island of freedom in a sea of people resigned to slavery.” 

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