The Santa Monica City Council
The Santa Monica City Council

The Santa Monica City Council Tuesday night unanimously voted to have city staff study potential impacts of the Residocracy-backed no-growth Land Use Voter Empowerment (L.U.V.E.) initiative before making a final decision next month about whether to put it on the November ballot.

The decision to study the initiative, which would require nearly all new projects over two stories (or 32 feet) to be approved by voters for the next 20 years, came after several Council members outlined a number of questions they had regarding the initiative’s potential impacts on the availability and location of housing, its effect on the internal consistency of the city’s municipal code, whether or not the measure will actually mitigate traffic, and how the initiative might affect property owners’ ability to repair or rebuild buildings in the event of an earthquake or fire, among other things. The full text of the initiative is available here.

“I obviously feel that studying it is the responsible thing to do; it would make no sense for this council to proceed without authorizing a study,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who has expressed concerns in the past about the extremity of the initiative.

Because the County Registrar last month confirmed that supporters of the initiative had managed to gather at least the minimum number of signatures necessary to qualify the initiative for the ballot, the Council had three options Tuesday: to adopt the initiative as is, to study the initiative, or to put the initiative on the November ballot without first studying it. After the study is conducted, the question of whether to adopt the initiative as is or to put it on the ballot in November will come back to the Council, likely at its July 12 meeting.

“Both of the authors of the initiative and a number of people from neighborhood groups said we should adopt this initiative tonight, where I thought the whole point was to give the voters a choice,” he said, referring to statements made by the roughly half dozen supporters of the initiative during public testimony.

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“I feel there is a certain internal discrepancy there between a group of people who want voters to have a say and who came to us tonight saying, ‘No, don’t put it on the ballot; adopt it tonight without studying it,’” said McKeown.

Councilmember Gleam Davis called for the study to look at other cities where similar initiatives had passed and the outcomes those initiatives have led to, as well as the potential impact on displacement and gentrification in neighborhoods.

The so-called L.U.V.E. initiative is similar to actions taken by more conservative coastal cities like Encinitas. In June 2013, voters in Encinitas narrowly approved Proposition A, which put a blanket cap on height and density of new buildings. However, Encinitas soon came under fire for violating state law, which allows density bonuses in new housing construction when the projects include affordable housing. In July, the city of Encinitas settled and agreed to allow the density bonuses mandated by state law, but the suit still ended up costing the city $200,000.

Given just how tight the current rental housing market is in Santa Monica, the additional constraints to housing growth in the L.U.V.E. initiative will likely only make matters worse.

Councilmember Ted Winterer wanted the initiative’s exemption for senior housing studied, pointing out that he wasn’t sure if there was any affordable component to the exemption or if it would exempt housing for the affluent. He also wanted to study the impact the initiative would have on public infrastructure projects, like new fire stations.

McKeown also asked that the questions raised by the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica about the initiative be studied.

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich tried to gauge whether there was support from her colleagues to place a competing measure, sponsored by the city, on the ballot that would also require voter approval for new projects, though she didn’t specify what would be the threshold. She dropped the issue when it was clear that Council was opposed to the idea.

In the end, the Council voted 6-to-0 to study the initiative and hear the question again in July. Councilmember Terry O’Day was absent. Tuesday’s meeting can be viewed here.