Burbank City Council Passes Motion to Allow Earlier Say in SB 35 Projects

The property at Pickwick is being developed through SB35 (Photo by Ross A Benson)

At the Dec. 7 Burbank City Council Meeting, a motion was passed to alter an ordinance addressing the process for handling projects submitted to the city under Senate Bill 35. 

This is the state bill that was used for a project that will allow a 98-unit housing development to be constructed on the property of Pickwick Bowl and Gardens. The bill speeds the approval of housing projects throughout the state in cities where Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals have not been met while simultaneously limiting a local government’s say in the matter. 

The staff report by the Community Development Department stated that reviewing proposals submitted under SB 35 and other housing bills is “a routine function of City staff who have land use planning expertise.” Further, the write-up  explained that if the council was to be notified as early as the Notice of Determination is submitted for such a project, it “will cause significant delay and could result in the City missing critical deadlines needed to preserve local authority.”

In response to the ordinance, Councilmember Sharon Springer made a motion to add a city council role in determining site eligibility within 60 days of a notice of intent being filed to apply for SB 35. Councilmember Bob Frutos seconded the motion and voiced his support for allowing councilmembers to have input early in the Streamlined Ministerial Process.

“I will be supporting this [amendment] because this is really, really complicated and I still believe we can…work through this and get a better ordinance out,” Frutos said.

The amendment then passed with a 3-2 vote. Springer, Frutos, and Mayor Jess Talamantes voted in favor of the amendment, while Councilmembers Nick Schultz and Konstantine Anthony voted against it.

The meeting also addressed a verbal conversation city staff recently had with personnel from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. City Planner Fred Ramirez, Deputy City Planner Scott Plambaeck, and now City Attorney Joseph McDougall were the staff members who engaged in the call. This took place after the HCD received an inquiry from Assemblymember Laura Friedman’s office regarding SB 35 and the Pickwick project. Ramirez explained that the HCD independently concurred with city staff’s conclusion that the project qualifies for SB 35 site eligibility.

“[The HCD] did their own assessment,… and they came to the same conclusion that staff came to in the determination that the project meets the requirements for submittal under SB 35, including site eligibility to be able to submit,” Ramirez said. “But at the end of the day, that’s not taking away any power from the council…to have the ability to make a final decision on a project and verify all the facts in front of you like you would for any other project.”

Pickwick Bowl is a Commercial Recreation zoning site, and is the only land in the City of Burbank with that zoning designation. The department, however, has referenced the General Plan’s anticipation of low-density residential on this site, which they say qualifies the development for review under SB 35. Ramirez stated that if the city’s General Plan includes residential potential for a site, the discretionary element of the review process is removed, and an objective checklist instead determines site eligibility for SB 35. 

“The fact that the General Plan itself identifies a land use designation for maximum allowable residential density, that is enough to qualify the project for an SB 35 review,” Ramirez said. 

Although this is the understanding of the department, Springer says she finds fault in their evaluation. In spite of city staff referencing the General Plan’s mention of the potential for residential in the Rancho neighborhood, she sees a contradiction in implementing residential property on a commercially zoned spot. 

“Staff has shared their interpretations of SB 35 and I disagree with those interpretations,” Springer said. “Considering SB 35, the amended SB 35 Guidelines, Burbank Municipal Code, Zoning Ordinance and our General Plan, I believe that residential land use (apartments, condos) on non-residential sites (industrial, commercial) is not by right and is not eligible for the SB 35 ministerial streamlined process.”  

Springer says that the lack of guidelines regarding developing residential units on sites not zoned for residential projects warrants a reevaluation of SB 35 from the department.

“SB 35 requires that any project using the Streamlined Ministerial Process must meet objective standards established before the project is filed, and those standards must be readily available to the developer and the public,” Springer said. “These standards have not been developed for residential construction (apartments, condos) that takes place on non-residential sites (industrial, commercial).”

Springer’s amendment would add Burbank City Council review early on in determining site eligibility for SB 35. This, she says, ensures that both the council and city staff members would be aware of whether or not a project may qualify for the Streamlined Ministerial Process quickly after a submittal is received. 

“Time, money and effort will be saved, and if that particular site isn’t eligible, our Community Development and Economic Development Department can direct them to the regular development approval process or help find a suitable location,” Springer said of the benefits of her amendment. “We were elected to represent our community, and we must accept that responsibility and not abdicate.”

A more extensive review process would ordinarily take place prior to the passing of SB 35, which Springer detailed includes a Planned Development process under a Development Agreement. Without this guidance and a delayed review from the council, she fears that residential units could be built in hazardous areas. If the council gains this early input, Springer believes they would be able to intercept residential developments being placed on unsuitable land. 

“It might not be safe to allow residential next to a freeway, steel plant, a busy utility truck depot, or a power plant without mitigations included in a Development Agreement,” Springer said.

Most recently, the Notice of Intent filed for the application at the Pickwick site has been deemed complete by the city. City of Burbank Public Information Officer Simone McFarland says the development is now going through the 90-day Tribal Consultation process. After this period, the applicant may submit for the Streamlined Ministerial Approval Process. Although the exact time has not yet been determined, the city predicts that the council will be able to review the project at some point in the future.

“It is anticipated that the City Council will be able to undertake ministerial design review and public oversight consistent with the proposed Ordinance at a later date,” McFarland said. 

In addition to the Pickwick development, there are currently three other projects that have been submitted to the city under SB 35. These are: a seven-story residential building at 2814 W. Empire Ave., a development at 3000 Empire Ave., and a third at  the Corner of N. Ontario Street and W. Empire Avenue. The two latter projects are not yet on the city’s website, as they are in the initial stages of review. They are projected to be posted online by mid-January.

Following the motion initiated by Springer, the ordinance will next come back on the council on January 4, 2021. Springer hopes for a positive outcome in all cases related to SB 35, but maintains her opinion that members of the council should have been informed of the Pickwick project and the bill during its early phases to best serve the community.

“I regret that we were not included from the beginning, now almost nine months ago,” Springer said.