ORINDA --The city of Orinda could soon be in compliance with state housing law requirements for the first time if officials agree to rezone a piece of land to accommodate more affordable housing.

The recommendation by the California Department of Housing and Community Development calls for city officials to increase the housing density on at least 3.2 acres within Orinda to address a deficiency of very-low-income housing units the city is legally required to zone for, but not build.

Once the city rezones the church-owned land on Santa Maria Way and allows a minimum of 20 units of residential housing per acre there, state officials will certify Orinda's "housing element," a part of the city's general plan. State law requires that cities and towns have a certified housing element for meeting housing needs for residents of all income levels.

According to the Regional Housing Need Allocation, the city must show it can accommodate a certain number of very low-, low-, moderate- and market-rate housing units. If the city fails to zone for those residences within a given RHNA cycle, the shortfall of housing units is carried over to the next.

The Santa Maria rezoning and density increase will allow for 64 very-low-income multifamily housing units "by right" in the 2007-2014 RHNA cycle, including a 28-unit "unaccommodated need" from the previous planning period. The city council plans to approve the rezoning after adopting the draft housing element, tentatively scheduled for August.


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Orinda planning director Emmanuel Ursu stressed at a meeting this week that the changes will only affect the Santa Maria site, and not the city's downtown commercial district. Building height limits will also not change, Ursu said. The city's general plan currently allows a maximum housing density of 10 units per acre and 38 units per acre for senior housing; building heights can't exceed 35 feet without an exception.

Some Orinda residents on Monday, worried about the housing plan, told the council an influx of residents could change the city's "semirural character," affect schools and impact property values. Others questioned the state mandates, and urged the council to "push back" on housing requirements.

Still others linked the changes to Plan Bay Area, a document outlining the integration of regional transportation, housing and land use planning. That plan is an outgrowth of the One Bay Area multiagency collaboration, which grants funds for compliance with RHNA numbers and the production of housing.

"The character of the city that is so important to all of us is slowly being eroded and ultimately destroyed if we do not take steps to prevent that," said resident Michael Delehunt, who urged a public vote on such changes. Other residents decried a lack of time to review the draft housing element before its adoption and questioned an idea to change zoning for second units such as in-law units or other rental property to accommodate more affordable housing.

At least one councilperson bristled at suggestions the city was hastily making decisions without public input.

Councilman Steve Glazer said the city has been working on the housing element for years and has pushed back on certain mandates received from HCD and other entities resulting in a noncertified housing element.

"We want to protect our quality of life here in Orinda and we're not going to give them the things that they may require of us that don't fit into those standards that we all have and love about this town where we want to raise our families," Glazer said.

In addition to impacting a city's eligibility or competitiveness for state and other funding programs, compliance issues can also cause legal problems, said HCD spokesman Eric Johnson. "If the housing element is out of compliance, then the city's general plan can be found to be out of compliance. It can open up a city or town to lawsuits," Johnson said.

The city is already studying requirements for its fifth housing cycle covering 2014-2022. Staffers are foreseeing zoning changes in that cycle to accommodate very low income housing needs.

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