San Mateo residents pursue initiative aiming to preserve neighborhoods, build near Caltrain

San Mateo council places height-density measure on November ballot, then opposes it

in Community/Featured/Headline

While many of us are thinking about the future, the shaping of what’s next for San Mateo’s built environment is a hot topic for the November ballot.

On Monday evening, the San Mateo City Council both unanimously placed a Citizen Initiative on the November ballot and adopted a position of opposition to it.  The measure seeks to extend a previous voter initiative originally adopted in 1991 that limits building heights across the city to 55 feet and restricts density to 50 units per acre.

The city was legally required to place the measure on the ballot because the County Elections Department certified the proponents had sufficient signatures, 5,500, to qualify. The proponents, San Mateans for Responsive Government, or SMRG, objected to the council taking a position of opposition and instead urged it to remain neutral.  That argument didn’t persuade any of the councilmembers in their action to oppose the measure.

Instead, Council followed the recommendation from an ad hoc subcommittee consisting of Mayor Joe Goethals and Vice Mayor Eric Rodriguez. In its recommendation to oppose the initiative, the subcommittee cited the measure’s impact to “stifle the [general plan] process and discourage participation.” During the meeting, Vice Mayor Rodriguez said state mandates will not change the need for more housing, which is unachievable under height and density limits, noting, “the status quo cannot continue.”

During Monday’s meeting, the council decided to go beyond providing the full text of the initiative online and voted to additionally print and mail it to voters at a cost of about $20,000, a move that affirms the council is “united by transparency,” according to Councilmember Diane Papan.

SMRG expressed disappointment in the council decision to oppose the ballot measure, arguing in a letter that extending it “helps to keep the power in the hands of the people.” SMRG spokesperson, Michael Weinhauer, also offered public comment reiterating the points in the letter and claiming that height and density limits don’t interfere with the general plan process.

Two members of the public spoke in favor of the sub-committee’s recommendation. Leora Tanjuatco Ross of the Housing leadership Council said her organization opposes the measure and supports engaging in the community input process of the general plan process. Jordan Grimes, a housing advocate and lifelong San Matean,  spoke to the more inclusive nature of the general plan process the engage the community on shaping the future compared to the ballot initiative, “there are over 100,000 residents in San Mateo and less than 50,000 registered voters.”

As for the council’s rational, all agreed that the citizen’s initiative hindered the community planning process and constituted ballot box planning that would restrict the council and city’s ability to plan for its future, especially in the face of many unknown impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilmember Amourence Lee, who also serves on the general plan sub-committee, spoke of the mutual trust in moving through the current general plan process, which is more robust than in previous years. She shared a conversation with State Sen. Jerry Hill, a former San Mateo mayor and proponent of height and density limits in the 1990s. His thinking has evolved and he questions the appropriateness for the time, Lee said. She added, “freezing ourselves in time isn’t evolving to the needs of our community.” In a post-decision statement, Lee expanded upon why she opposed the November ballot measure, saying it “actually works against what most San Mateans want” as reflected in a recent community survey.

Councilwoman Papan expressed the need for balance she observed in that survey, which showed that residents “value the character of our small town feel and recognize that we need more housing.”

Mayor Goethals reiterated the subcommittee’s recommendation and echoed that the general plan process is the best path forward for San Mateans.

In addition to placing this measure on the ballot, the council authorized the municipal election of current incumbents Papan and Lee. As of now, there is only one challenger to the two incumbents in Lisa Diaz Nash, who is the beneficiary of a planned fundraiser organized by SMRG supporter Weinhauer.