Opinion: The 12 Days Woodside Was a Mountain Lion Habitat

Cover photo by Tess Buckley

The Woodside Council is here, and it speaks for the mountain lions! The mountain lions, apparently, are very worried about how Senate Bill 9 will affect the neighborhood’s appearance, and support any way to keep Woodside “rural” and exclusive to the very wealthy.

Chronicle readers might remember our previous reporting in November on Senate Bill 9 (SB 9), California’s Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act. The bill allows owners of single family lots to increase the number of housing units they can build on their lot to four.

The legislative opposition to the HOME Act in Woodside began on December 14th, when the Woodside Council limited units built under SB 9 to no more than 800 square feet under its Objective Design Standards. Objective Standards are rules that municipalities can place on houses that use the bill on top of state legislation. However, the SB 9 bill text states that local agencies must allow the floor area of new units to be at least 800 square feet. 

So, state law requires the new units be more than 800 feet and the city council says it has to be less than 800 feet. That’s impossible and that’s the point. 

As if that wasn’t enough, on the 25th of January, the Woodside Council decided to halt the use of SB 9 for an indefinite period of time, which they justified in a memo on the 27th. This memo ended with a claim written in bold: “Given that Woodside—in its entirety—is habitat for [mountain lions], no parcel within Woodside is currently eligible for an SB 9 project.

This claim is based on many legal texts. The bill itself contains many requirements: changes under SB 9 must be built in urban areas, cannot destroy over 25% of walls of the existing building, must comply with local Objective Standards, and more. There is no specific exemption for locations declared habitats for endangered species in the bill, but there was one in Woodside’s Objective Standards.

Reading this, a few problems immediately arise. Chief among them: if all Woodside is a habitat for mountain lions, then why do people live there? Why are there houses in a mountain lion habitat? Did the mountain lions elect the Council of Woodside to be their legislative representation?

Another problem is that this is illegal, violating the clause in the bill stating that local Objective Standards cannot “have the effect of physically precluding [making impossible] the construction of up to 2 units…” 

While it is certainly difficult to read dense legal texts, it would be a mistake to assume that the Woodside Council simply overlooked this. Finding the habitat loophole required reading the bill until it mentions local Objective Standards, and reading the California Endangered Species Act. In all of this, they couldn’t have missed the first few paragraphs of the bill saying that everything they are doing is illegal and unnecessary.

Dick Brown was chosen as Mayor of Woodside in December 2021 by the elected Woodside Council. The Almanac quoted Mayor Brown saying, “Every house that’s built [in Woodside] is one more acre taken away from [mountain lions] habitat. Where are they going to go? Pretty soon we’ll have nothing but asphalt.” 

It is almost impressive how wrong that is. To start, the bill allows more houses in places already zoned for housing. If a mountain lion is using your backyard as their habitat, you either chase it off whether or not the bill exists, or don’t build housing on that land. If the Council is looking for housing opportunities that don’t take new space, then SB 9 is ideal for that, as it only applies on land already used for housing. As for the asphalt comment; again, this bill adds no new roads to the town, which may not be the case for most other solutions.

The same article also reported that Brown said that he and the Council created a committee to find new solutions to housing that aren’t SB 9, saying they are “very interested in creating more housing alternatives; we’re not trying to shut anything down… We just don’t want to have somebody in Sacramento saying we have to put a multistory high-rise in a rural community.” 

Creating a committee to examine a problem so legislators can pretend that they’re doing something while ignoring the obvious solution that they don’t want to implement is a classic move. Also, SB 9, at most, allows duplexes to be built. It’s not that there are no two-story buildings already in the wealthy area of Woodside. Noticeably, this has nothing to do with protecting mountain lions, but instead with creating an exclusive community. 

The average price of a home in Woodside is five million dollars, and this solution would lower housing prices. This is good for aspiring rentors and rentees, but not those who want an exclusive community. 

The Attorney General of California, Rob Bonta, did not take too kindly to Woodside’s veto. In a letter sent to the Council on February 6th, Bonta criticized Woodside’s “deliberate and transparent attempt to avoid complying with SB 9”, going on to say that it is “quite clearly contrary to the law.” His message was clear: If Woodside continued down this path, the attorney general would be compelled to act.

The same day, the Woodside Council backed off in a press release. It cites “guidance from the Department of Fish and Wildlife on how to identify habitat”, but it seems rather convenient that this happened the same day Bonta sent the letter. An entire section also stated that, “interim statements [made between January 25 and February 6] made by any individual member of the Town Council represent personal views that do not represent the collective views of the Town Council.” 

For 12 days, the entire town of Woodside was classified as a mountain lion habitat by bad faith actors in the local government trying to avoid having to deal with the law. Thanks to proactive politicians, it was reversed, but this won’t stop disingenuous attempts in the future to skirt the law by politicians like Dick Brown.

Brian is a senior at M-A with a storied history of journalism. His favorite stories to write tend to be about school, local, and state policies, politics, and issues, making the long and vague world of bureaucracy brief and understandable. He writes creatively and plays chess in his free time.

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