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California court rules state laws cannot broadly override local government

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(The Center Square) – A California court ruled state laws cannot broadly override local control over development and zoning, finding one of the state’s most significant new zoning laws is unconstitutional.

“This is not a case about whether or not our State Legislature may enact legislation to ensure access to affordable housing or whether it may act to address the different concern of a statewide housing shortage more generally,” wrote California Superior Court Judge Curtis A. Kin in his ruling. “However, because the provisions of SB 9 are not reasonably related and sufficiently narrowly tailored to the explicit stated purpose of that legislation — namely, to ensure access to affordable housing — SB 9 cannot stand.”

SB 9 required ministerial approval of both splitting of lots in areas zoned for single-family homes, and duplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes, thereby creating the ability to effectively buy a single-family home and split it into four units. Ministerial approval means the government must approve a project if it complies with applicable building requirements and fees have been paid.

The charter cities of Redondo Beach, Carson, Torrance, Whittier and Del Mar sued to overturn SB 9. If California Attorney General Rob Bonta loses its case in the appeals process, it’s likely the ruling could apply to cities across the state.

Kin has ruled on housing matters before, recently siding with a pro-housing organization against Beverly Hills. In December 2023, Kin ruled Beverly Hills could not issue permits for renovations or other building changes except for new housing construction due its failure to comply with state law requiring it to produce a plan for meeting its approved share of its regional housing needs allocation.

The League of California Cities, which wrote an amicus brief supporting Redondo and the other cities against the state, applauded the ruling.

“We are pleased the court’s decision recognizes the vitally important home rule authority of charter cities,” said Carolyn Coleman, Cal Cities executive director and CEO, in a statement. “The court’s ruling reaffirms the foundational principle that land use planning and zoning are local matters.”

While state laws tend to preempt local laws, California’s state constitution has a clause giving broad “home rule” powers to the state’s charter cities. This doctrine allows charter cities to have broad power over their self governance, including taxation and elections, though these matters are currently up for legal dispute.

In one major ongoing case, Bonta filed suit against the City of Huntington Beach for adopting a voter identification law for local elections, testing whether, and to what extent, the state constitution’s provisions on charter city control over local governance and elections will hold up in court.

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