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Bay Area city finally passes affordable housing project after weekslong fracas

By Alec Regimbal, Politics Reporter

May 15, 2024

A rendering of the proposed development at 555 Kelly Ave. in Half Moon Bay. The city's planning commission voted to approve a permit to begin building the project at a meeting on Tuesday night. 

Half Moon Bay Planning Commission

Half Moon Bay’s planning commission approved a permit to begin work on a 40-unit, five-story affordable housing complex for older farmworkers on Tuesday night, which, at least for now, marks the end of a squabble that has embroiled the tiny coastal city for three weeks.

The five-person commission approved the project on a 4-0-1 vote, with Vice Chair Hazel Joanes abstaining. Despite the intense focus on the proposal in recent weeks, the final vote lacked a single degree of drama or fanfare; commissioners had to clarify for the audience later in the meeting that they had, in fact, voted to approve the permit.

“The project has been approved, the permit for tonight has been approved,” Commission Chair Margaret Gossett said, minutes before the meeting adjourned. “I just want you all to know that.”

At two previous meetings about the complex, on April 23 and 30, commissioners decided to delay a vote on its approval, saying they hadn’t had enough time to talk about certain project aspects. That led supporters to accuse the commission of purposefully stonewalling the project. It eventually drew the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called the delays “egregious” and threatened the city with legal action if the commission continued to waffle.

Unlike the past two meetings, commissioners did not begin Tuesday’s meeting with public comment. Instead, they dove straight into asking questions of the project’s joint applicants: Mercy Housing and Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, or ALAS, a local nonprofit that aims to provide resources for Latino families in Half Moon Bay.

The complex, estimated to cost $42 million, would include a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments specifically for farmworkers who are at least 55 years old and make a certain percentage of the city’s median income. The building includes a resource center on the ground floor, and its proposed location on city-owned land at 555 Kelly Ave. would place it near many of Half Moon Bay’s most famous businesses.

Questions from Tuesday’s meeting focused on a kitchen in the resource center, the resource center’s square footage, and the project’s impact on traffic and parking in the area, a recurring theme in all three meetings about the complex. The most contentious subject during deliberations was how the project’s scope had changed in the roughly two years since the City Council — which will likely oversee the complex’s final approval — had seen the proposal.

When it was first introduced in 2022, the complex was designed to be four stories high and include nothing but studio units. After several community meetings, the project’s applicants added one- and two-bedroom apartments, which bumped the complex’s height to five stories. Exactly who would qualify for a residential unit also changed in subsequent iterations of the proposal, commissioners said Tuesday.

“What I have a hard time with is this creep that’s happened since the City Council said ‘yes,’” Commissioner David Gorn said, referring to the council’s initial vetting of the project back in 2022 before the council sent it to the planning commission for review. “And since the City Council said ‘yes,’ then it’s like, ‘add this, add this, add this, add this,’ and now we’re looking at a project that you’re saying we need to approve as is, not what the City Council sent to us originally.”

Ultimately, the commission voted to approve the project with a few conditions, including that the city attempt to mitigate construction impacts, such as traffic and dust, at nearby businesses and schools. It also voted to author an advisory statement to the council describing the ways in which the project had evolved over time and identifying aspects that deserve more consideration.

Discussion about the project is likely to continue in the coming weeks.

While those who spoke at the meetings on April 23 and 30 overwhelmingly supported the project, City Manager Matthew Chidester previously told SFGATE that he believes the complex has its fair share of critics. He guessed that someone in the community would appeal the commission’s decision, which would kick the project back up to the City Council for final approval.

Still, Tuesday’s meeting put an end to a weekslong fracas over a project that supporters say is vital to showing goodwill to a vulnerable population, especially after a 2023 mass shooting that left seven farmworkers dead across two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Luis Enrique Bazán, the assistant director of ALAS, told SFGATE in a text Wednesday morning. “We are getting ready to go through the same process with the City Council, and our message is going to stay strong and consistent. The hard work that we did and the passion of the community is what made people recognize that we are on the side of the law and of justice.”

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