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This tiny Bay Area city wants affordable housing. Officials are worried about 'character.'

In Half Moon Bay, the city’s planning commission has so far neglected to take action on a widely supported affordable housing project for older farmworkers

By Alec Regimbal, Politics Reporter

May 14, 2024

Screenshot of Kelly Avenue in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Screenshot via Google Street View

In the tiny Bay Area city of Half Moon Bay, a controversy is playing out over a proposal to build an affordable housing complex for older farmworkers. The city’s five-person planning commission is being accused of deliberately slow-walking the project, and has found itself in the crosshairs of none other than Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The accusations stem from two lengthy public meetings, on April 23 and 30, in which the commission decided twice to delay taking action on approving a permit to begin work on a 40-unit, five-story complex on a plot of city-owned land at 555 Kelly Ave. Those decisions came in the face of overwhelming public support for the project, supercharged by a mass shooting in 2023 that left seven farmworkers dead across two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay.

Now, a third meeting scheduled for Tuesday represents the next chance for the commission to decide on the project. With community patience seemingly waning, it seems unlikely — if not downright unwise — that commissioners will dawdle for the third time in just three weeks.

The complex, estimated to cost $42 million, would include six studio apartments, 26 one-bedroom apartments and eight two-bedroom apartments specifically for farmworkers who are at least 55 years old and make either 30% or 50% of Half Moon Bay’s median income (a renter’s income level will determine which units they’re eligible for). It would also include a farmworker resource center on the first floor and would be centrally located near many of the coastal city’s most famous businesses, including Dad’s Luncheonette and Half Moon Bay Bakery.

At the April 30 meeting, 24 of the 28 people who addressed the commission about the project expressed support for it.

“These individuals, who have toiled tirelessly throughout their lives to feed our nation, deserve our utmost respect and support in their golden years,” one speaker said. “This region relies heavily on the labor of these dedicated individuals, yet they often face inadequate living conditions, as a lot of us discovered during the tragedy not too long ago.”

Yet commissioners grilled the project’s joint applicants — Mercy Housing and Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, or ALAS, a local nonprofit that focuses on the social wellness of Latino families in the community — about various aspects of the proposed complex, including its height and certain design qualities. Those questions came after the panel had allowed about two hours of public comment. At about 11:30 p.m., the commission decided to punt a final decision on the project to Tuesday, citing inadequate time to discuss the proposal.

The delay, which came just a week after the April 23 meeting also ended in indecision following about three hours of public comment, angered project supporters. Luis Enrique Bazán, the assistant director of ALAS, told SFGATE that the commission’s nitpicking of the project amounts to purposeful stonewalling.

Half Moon Bay Planning Commission

“It was a strategy to waste time,” Bazán said. “They cannot fight this project other than by delaying it … that’s their strategy, because they do not want to make a decision. They really don’t want to make a decision. They really don’t want this to happen.”

Half Moon Bay City Manager Matthew Chidester defended the commissioners in an interview with SFGATE.

“It is our planning commission’s job to thoroughly review every project proposal that comes before them, to ask critical questions and make sure that they’re doing what they’re charged with,” said Chidester, who supports the development. “… Most major projects take hours and hours and hours of deliberation.”

However, some questions asked by commissioners at the April 30 meeting appeared frivolous and seemingly demonstrated a misunderstanding of what the project actually is.

One commissioner asked whether the building’s air conditioning would work even if the power went out, and another asked if there would be an on-site caregiver — something that would be more common in a retirement or nursing home, rather than in an apartment complex.

Another commissioner, Rick Hernandez, asked why the applicants hadn’t considered a nearby plot of land in their proposal, even though the city hadn’t offered up that land as part of the project.

Hernandez also repeatedly asked how certain design aspects would “inform the character” of Half Moon Bay, and went so far as to suggest that protecting coastal resources was more important than creating more affordable housing. Specifically, he wondered how the project would jibe with the state’s Coastal Act, which requires coastal cities to come up with individual land use plans that “protect and enhance coastal resources.”

“The primary objective of the [act] is to protect coastal resources, full stop,” Hernandez said. “A second-tier consideration is to provide affordable housing.”

Commissioners also asked several questions related to the project’s impact on parking and traffic in the area, a common line of inquiry for housing skeptics. They additionally spent time deliberating whether it was feasible to remove the resource center on the ground floor to cut down on the project’s height. The applicants pushed back on this suggestion, noting that certain public funding for the project is tied to the inclusion of the resource center.

As the meeting dragged on, one commissioner, Steve Ruddock, argued that the commission should just vote on the project, simply to get it out of their hands.

Chidester expects the saga won’t end Tuesday, no matter what the planning commission decides. He said anyone in the community can appeal the commission’s decision; if that happens, the project will go to the city council for final approval. As to why someone would appeal at all, Chidester said he believes the project could have more critics than people realize.

“I think the meetings themselves are a little bit deceiving when it comes to public support,” he said. “This is a challenging project. And though it fits the values of Half Moon Bay, as it currently stands for a small town, we’ve got varying opinions. I think a lot of the people that are opposed to the project don’t want to speak out publicly.”

Indeed, opinions from the project’s critics are easy to find among the comments submitted to the city electronically. In a letter dated April 16, one person echoed the planning commissioners’ concerns about the project’s height, writing, “Five stories high is just not in step with the character and scale of our community.”

In another letter, dated May 4, one longtime resident expressed concern that the building would “deteriorate” the property values of local businesses, and thus depress “property taxes for schools and other public services, and the over-all quality of life” in Half Moon Bay. “We urge the city to consider an alternative building spot,” they wrote.

The planning commission is now under tremendous pressure to act following an announcement by Newsom. Last week, the governor called the situation “egregious” and threatened the city with legal action if the project continues to experience delays.

“Rather than do the right thing and approve badly needed housing for the workers who feed us, a 40-unit complex for low-income seniors is being stalled by local officials,” he said in a statement. “This delay is egregious and jeopardizes the well-being of Californians. The state’s Housing Accountability Unit is reviewing the city’s actions and will take all necessary steps to hold Half Moon Bay accountable if the project does not move forward as state law requires.”

Bazán applauded the governor’s actions, arguing that the commission’s failure so far to act on a project the community is pushing for neglects the democratic process.

“These people have to understand that they have to be accountable for the job, not just to the community, but to the rules of democracy, and to the system,” he said. “It’s a ripple effect. Whatever happens in a tiny little town like Half Moon Bay will happen everywhere else. It sets precedent. It’s a completely different thing when you think that this is your kingdom, and you can do whatever you want. That’s why the message from politicians, from the state, are so important, because you remind them about accountability.”

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