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Town Called Itself a Big Cat Habitat to Block Housing, Then Reversed Course

A Silicon Valley town declared itself a mountain lion habitat to forestall duplexes on small lots. Facing ridicule and the threat of legal action, officials backed down.

For most of a two-hour meeting last month, the leaders of a wealthy Silicon Valley town debated a new state law that vexed them: Senate Bill 9, allowing developers to build duplexes on single-family lots.

The same day, the leaders of the town, Woodside, Calif., declared the entire town a mountain lion habitat, blocking such development.

Late on Sunday, two weeks after the announcement drew outrage from affordable housing supporters, ridicule on social media and the threat of legal action from the state attorney general, the Town Council abandoned its approach.

Woodside’s brief era as a self-declared big cat sanctuary was over.

The council released a statement saying that the Department of Fish and Wildlife “had advised that the entire Town of Woodside cannot be considered habitat.”

“As such, the Town Council has instructed staff to immediately begin accepting SB 9 applications,” the Council said.

The announcement came the same day that Rob Bonta, the state attorney general, wrote the town a letter accusing it of making a “deliberate and transparent attempt” to sidestep Senate Bill 9, aimed at alleviating California’s housing crisis by letting homeowners build up to four residential units on a single-family lot.

“There is no valid basis to claim that the entire town of Woodside is a habitat for mountain lions,” Mr. Bonta wrote. “Land that is already developed — with, for example a single-family home — is not, by definition, habitat.”

He told officials that if they did not comply with the law, “my office won’t stand idly by.”

On Monday, Mr. Bonta’s office said that it was “pleased with the town’s decision to withdraw” its declaration.

“We are continuing to monitor SB 9 compliance in Woodside and other localities, and are ready to take action where necessary to enforce the state’s housing laws,” it said. “Our message to local governments is simple: act in good faith, follow the law, and do your part to increase the housing supply.”

Dick Brown, the mayor of Woodside, a town of about 5,500 people near the billionaire homes and tech hubs of Redwood City and Palo Alto, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Monday.

Mr. Brown defended the town’s decision to declare itself a habitat in an interview with The Almanac last week and said that allowing construction of duplexes was “not the Woodside way.”

“We love animals,” he said, The Almanac reported. “Where are they going to go? Pretty soon we’ll have nothing but asphalt and no animals or birds.”

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

During the January meeting, Town Council members and residents discussed the dangers of building in areas at high risk to wildfires and whether the law would really help create affordable housing in a town with multimillion-dollar homes, and where the median income is $250,000 or more.

The idea of affordable housing in Woodside was “practically meaningless,” one person said, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

Some Woodside residents spoke in favor of the habitat designation, with one describing seeing mountain lions on home security cameras. But others argued against resisting the law, and said that creating more housing would help families seeking a first home.

Daniel Yost, who served on the Town Council for five years, said on Monday, “I never heard anyone express any concern about preserving mountain lion territory.” But, Mr. Yost said, there were complaints by some Council members about housing mandates.

“We’re fortunate here in Woodside. It is a wealthy community,” Mr. Yost said. “A lot of people have benefited from the California dream here,” he said. While some residents want to “find a way for others to benefit as well,” there were also those who “seem intent on sort of drawing up the drawbridge,” he added.

In all his years in Woodside, Mr. Yost said that he had never personally seen a mountain lion. But he recalled that one weekend when he was away, his neighbors said that they saw a mountain lion on the street.

Since S.B. 9 was taken up by California lawmakers last year, many local government and homeowner groups have vehemently opposed the measure, with some saying it “crushes single-family zoning.”

Sonja Trauss, a housing advocate and the executive director of Yes In My Backyard Law, said that her organization had documented about 40 cases in which towns sought to limit, block or discourage S.B. 9 housing. Many towns were passing “urgency” ordinances, she said, with little time for review by the public and elected leaders.

“The amount of anxiety this is causing, compared to the ultimate density that it requires to be permitted, is very strange,” she said. “S.B. 9 is really one of the first statewide zonings that actually goes specifically after single-family areas.”

Michael Andersen, a senior housing researcher at Sightline Institute in Oregon, said that when states pass laws to address housing shortages, many wealthy communities often respond with new ordinances, like declaring neighborhoods a historic district, or imposing zoning regulations that make it difficult for a developer to build multifamily homes.

Woodside’s declaration that it was a habitat for a potentially endangered species was “very novel” by comparison, Mr. Andersen said.

Woodside does have an area of mountain lion habitat, but it also has an existing, mixed-development footprint, said Tiffany Yap, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“There aren’t any studies that say converting a single-family housing unit into a duplex will have an effect on mountain lions,” she said.

Ms. Yap said that the center had petitioned for mountain lions to be listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act because the animals face habitats fragmented by new construction and roads, vehicle collisions, poaching, poisoning and inbreeding caused by splintered populations.

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