ORINDA -- City leaders are moving forward with fine-tuning a fiercely debated housing plan amid calls from some residents to start the whole process anew and get more community input.

Council members took no action this week to adopt the draft "housing element," a state-required plan that shows how the city can accommodate future housing for residents at all income levels. However, they received a status update from city staffers, who reviewed the process some residents and community groups argue is tainted by a lack of transparency and with issues with the draft's submittal to the state.

Officials also heard more than two hours of public comment on the draft before agreeing on revisions -- including some suggested by community group Orinda Watch who say the draft contains "commitments" not required to comply with state law -- about references to a general plan update and rent-controlled second units. The draft needs to be finalized, reviewed for environmental compliance and adopted by the city council before a January deadline. It will then head to the California Department of Housing and Community Development for certification.


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Since 1969, state law has required all local governments have an updated "housing element" in their general plan to accommodate future housing needs. Orinda's draft element outlines how the city is planning for the 218 very low-, low-, moderate- and above moderate income housing units it is required to zone for in the 2007-14 housing plan to meet the "regional housing needs allocation," managed by the Association of Bay Area Governments.

The city must also show the state how it will accommodate an additional 64 very-low and low income units -- including some carried over from the previous planning cycle. HCD is requiring Orinda to zone those units to receive what would be the first housing element certification in the city's history. Staffers have suggested the low-income units could be accommodated on a 3.2-acre site near Santa Maria Church zoned for residential multifamily development at a density of 10 units per acre. The city -- which has proposed increasing the density to 20 units per acre -- now says up to 25 units per acre are needed at the Diocese of Oakland-owned site to fulfill state requirements.

On Tuesday, the church's administrator said that while there are no plans to sell, develop or change the Santa Maria site, the diocese supports social services.

"I myself and the diocese have worked together with various organizations to provide senior low-income housing in both Alameda and Contra Costa counties," said Father Robert Herbst. "We do not object to meeting the needs of affordable housing in the entire Bay Area, but I do ask that it's done in a very open and collaborative manner."

Residents questioned the density change and other issues, including the city's process for submitting the draft element to the state. Planning Director Emmanuel Ursu attempted to detail that process in a timeline he presented to the council.

Opponents argue Ursu and city consultant Barry Miller submitted an "official" draft element for state review without council authorization and public input. Some opponents have been urging the consultant's removal and want an independent investigation.

Ursu says the state received in June a revised "working draft" that incorporated council direction given at earlier public meetings -- some dating back two years -- in response to HCD comments on the draft element submitted December 2010 that did not meet certification requirements.

"HCD did not receive a draft housing element before public comment and council direction was provided," Ursu said in an e-mail.

The planning director also told the council Miller has completed his work and is too busy to continue consulting for the city.

As they have at previous meetings, Orinda Watch members and other residents repeated appeals that the city withdraw the housing element plan and assemble an ad hoc committee of residents and community group members to develop a new draft. A spokesman also denied claims that the group is preparing to sue the city over the housing element.

"We find ourselves in a process that's all screwed up, that's not credible," said resident Chris Kniel. "The only way forward to fix this thing is to have a citizen's commission of qualified people." Council members did not address the request.

HCD spokesman Eric Johnson said that agency has a tentative Aug. 27 date to meet with Orinda Watch to hear the group's concerns. Johnson said the department makes decisions in concert with local governments, and does review the public participation component if necessary.

The council will meet again Sept. 17 to discuss the draft. The city still needs to conduct an environmental review of the housing element and approve the Santa Maria housing density change before the element can be adopted.