ORINDA -- Residents' suggestions for modifying a state-required affordable housing plan will undergo city review, following a request from an outspoken community group vociferous in its criticism of the city's plan.

The City Council's decision this week to direct staff to analyze edits suggested by the group Orinda Watch to the city's highly-disputed draft housing element comes after months of tension over state-mandated housing needs.

Although the council previously incorporated suggestions made by the group in the third iteration of the draft, Tuesday's move marked a public shift in tone between the city and Orinda Watch.

"I'm willing to have the staff go back and look at the citizens' edits and see which ones they can incorporate which meet the goals and the philosophies and directions we've set forth tonight," Councilwoman Victoria Smith said.

City staffers will review the "citizens' edit" version of the draft housing element submitted by the group Sept. 11. The plan is to create a fourth "public review draft" incorporating new council direction and suggestions by the citizen's group. The council will discuss the new draft Oct. 1.

Members of the group, other residents and even some out-of-towners have for months taken city staff and council members to task over the draft housing element, which outlines how Orinda plans to accommodate future housing. A final version must be adopted by the city and certified by California Department of Housing and Community Development by Jan. 31.

The most heated criticism has occurred during public comment portions of City Council meetings, during which state open meeting laws prohibit council members from responding to items not on the agenda.

At Tuesday's meeting, Orinda Watch members answered questions about their edits to the draft housing element, including that the city remove language about subsidized housing; reaffirm Orinda's semirural character and make the text less "advocacy"-oriented.

"We're concerned about adding a lot of paraphernalia to the housing element on the basis that if it doesn't get implemented, that there's a potential basis for a lawsuit in the future -- and so take it out," said Orinda Watch member Chris Kniel.

Councilman Steve Glazer and other city leaders thanked the residents for their input. "I'm very appreciative of all the time that our community spent and staff spent working on this. It's been a long process," Glazer said. "It's clear to me that we're 98 percent or 99 percent together on all the goals that have been set. We now have some language and questions that we have to work on or adjust."

The housing element must show how the city plans to accommodate housing for the "regional housing needs allocation" managed by the Association of Bay Area Governments.

The city needs to show how it can provide land for -- but not build -- 218 housing units in the 2007-2014 housing needs allocation cycle. The allocation provides projections for market-, moderate-, low- and very low income housing.

One of the more contentious issues in the housing element involves zoning land to make up for a 28-unit shortfall of housing units from the previous cycle. HCD informed the city June 12 it will need to zone for those units in the final housing element it adopts.

The city plans to rezone a 3.2-acre parcel of land near Santa Maria Church to fulfill that requirement and those from the current cycle. Staffers originally said the site would be rezoned to accommodate 20 units of future housing there; HCD is now requiring Orinda to zone for 20-25 units per acre. The council directed staffers to again discuss the issue with the state.

An HCD spokesman said Wednesday if the city's adopted housing element includes a change only allowing development on the Santa Maria site "with a potentially constraining narrow range," the department would need to evaluate whether the revised element "complies with statute."

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