State wins a round in fight with Huntington Beach to build more housing

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California’s lawsuit against Huntington Beach, which accused the city of defying state efforts to ease the housing crisis, appears to be back on a fast track after the suit was temporarily halted by a Superior Court judge in November.

A three-judge panel at California’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal instructed a lower court Thursday that Huntington Beach’s status as a charter city did not stop the state from seeking a rapid hearing on its lawsuit. Charter cities adopt a voter-approved set of governing rules that give them more say over local affairs.

The lawsuit, brought by Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Department of Housing and Community Development, alleges that the city violated state law by rejecting a plan to provide enough houses and apartments to meet the region’s expected population growth.

Thursday’s action did not decide the merits of the state’s case against Huntington Beach. Instead, it paves the way for the case to continue on an expedited basis, unless the city can persuade the courts to halt the lawsuit for other reasons.

Although numerous cities have been slow to increase their housing supplies, Huntington Beach has drawn fire repeatedly from state officials because it has pointedly refused to follow state laws that address the housing crisis.

Triggering the latest battle, Huntington Beach’s council voted in March against a proposal to zone for roughly 13,400 additional housing units — the number assigned to the city by the Southern California Assn. of Governments in 2021. Under state law, cities have to revise the housing element of their general plans periodically to comply with a “regional housing needs assessment” done by intergovernmental groups such as SCAG.

The day after state officials filed an early version of its current lawsuit, Huntington Beach sought protection in federal court. In that case, the city claims the state-mandated regional housing needs assessment and its additional housing demands usurp Huntington Beach’s authority as a charter city, in violation of the California Constitution. It also argues that the mandates violate the city’s rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 1st and 14th Amendments, as well as the Commerce Clause.

Huntington Beach persuaded San Diego County Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal in November to put the state’s lawsuit on hold until after the city’s federal lawsuit could be decided. Shortly thereafter, a federal judge rejected the state’s lawsuit, saying the city had no standing to sue. Huntington Beach has since taken its case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Thursday, the state 4th Circuit panel wrote that by state statute, “charter cities are exempt from some requirements of state planning and zoning law,” but “like all other cities, charter cities must adopt general plans with the mandatory elements specified by state law, including a housing element.”

It went on to say that state law gives top priority to lawsuits against a city’s general plan, obligating the court to hold a hearing within 120 days if requested.

In a statement Thursday, Bonta said, “Today the Court of Appeal affirmed that every city will be held to the same standard…. No one, including Huntington Beach, is exempt from following the law. We’ll continue to use every legal tool available to hold those who break state housing laws accountable.”

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael E. Gates, however, said the appeals court misread state law. “We will continue to challenge any ruling that applies state law to charter cities that do not apply to charter cities,” he said in an interview.

Bacal has set a hearing for Jan. 26 on Bonta’s motion to let the state’s lawsuit proceed. Gates said Bacal “could continue the stay on other bases,” or she could lift the stay and have the two sides start litigating.



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