To avoid housing mandates, this California town wants to be declared a mountain lion sanctuary

Cougar Town

To avoid housing mandates, this California town wants to be declared a mountain lion sanctuary

A mountain lion (California Department of Fish and Wildlife/Flickr, accessed under CC BY 2.0)

California Governor Gavin Newsom, riding high off of a failed recall election attempt last fall, signed a package of housing bills into law on September 16 intended to combat the state’s massive housing deficiency. SB 9, the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act, is the one that drew the most media attention. It codified on a state level the ability to build duplexes and fourplexes on lots previously only zoned for single-family housing—single-family zoning was reported dead.

But one San Francisco suburb is looking to circumvent SB9 by using a clause that exempts land from upzoning if it’s denoted as a habitat for endangered animals. On January 27, the Town of Woodside released a memo to its residents stating that the entire town is a mountain lion habitat, and thus “no parcel within Woodside is currently eligible for an SB 9 project.”

The memo also noted that the town’s petition to be classified as a mountain lion habitat (and not a town) was awaiting determination from the California Fish and Game Commission.

This attempt to evade densification didn’t go unnoticed, as local outlets like The Almanac and international news like The Guardian alike took turns savaging what critics say is a blatant display of NIMBYism.

The town’s argument would hold more water if Woodside hadn’t taken steps to limit development in response to state housing mandates in the last few years (and if the town wasn’t known for being home to sprawling $100-million-plus megamansions). As The Almanac points out, on May 11, 2021, the Town Council voted 4-3 to adopt a resolution stating that the town was against state housing legislation and that such measures deprived towns of its ability to provide for their constituents.

As The Guardian noted, Woodside adopted an emergency ordinance to implement SB 9 on December 14, 2021, ahead of its formal enforcement on January 1, 2022. However, a month later on January 11, the Town Council restricted SB 9’s implementation, cutting units created by upzoning through SB 9 to 800 square feet (the bare minimum), removing basements from any SB 9 units, and prohibiting their creation in “Very High Fire Severity Zones.”

Although mountain lions frequently face development and freeways cutting into their territory, which can span up to 100 square miles, it is unclear how subdividing existing lots in an already built town would contribute to further habitat loss.

“We love animals,” Woodside Mayor Dick Brown told The Almanac when asked if the memo was about restricting development. “Every house that’s built is one more acre taken away from (mountain lions’) habitat. Where are they going to go? Pretty soon we’ll have nothing but asphalt and no animals or birds.”

Woodside is reportedly looking at other ways of creating new housing without having to comply with SB 9; the town is currently on the hook to create 328 new units of housing before 2031 under California’s most recent Regional Housing Needs Allocation cycle.