California's fight with San Francisco over waterfront buildings heads toward trial

A judge declined to rule Wednesday on a state lawsuit to strike down a San Francisco ballot measure that can limit the height of waterfront buildings, setting the stage for a September trial over whether voters anywhere in California can have a say on coastal development.

The State Lands Commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, is suing to overturn the Sierra Club’s Proposition B, passed by 59% of San Francisco voters in 2014. It requires voter approval for any waterfront project that exceeds the city’s height limit.

The commission says California law bars voters from playing a direct role in the use of public waterfront.

At a San Francisco Superior Court hearing, Judge Suzanne Bolanos tentatively rejected the Lands Commission’s request that she immediately invalidate Proposition B without a trial. She also denied the city’s request that she dismiss the case.

But in a preliminary ruling, Bolanos rebuffed the state’s argument that Proposition B automatically puts local wishes — for such things as lower buildings — ahead of San Francisco’s duty to safeguard the waterfront for the benefit of the public statewide.

“The commission has failed to explain how or whether Proposition B’s stated intent conflicts with statewide interests,” she said, referring to the ballot measure’s description as an effort to preserve San Francisco’s “unique and vibrant vital waterfront” with public views of the city and bay.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Joel S. Jacobs, the Lands Commission’s lawyer, told the judge it was impossible to know whether voters weighing in on waterfront projects were looking out primarily for the whole state or just for San Francisco.

“We don’t know why they’re voting the way they are,” he said.

Christine Van Aken, a San Francisco deputy city attorney, told the judge that the state had produced no evidence that Proposition B had led the city to approve waterfront projects that run afoul of state law on coastal protection.

Newsom, a Democrat running for governor, argued last week that the commission was not targeting San Francisco. Rather, he said, it was keeping “pro-development” voters elsewhere in California from approving projects on the coast.

In San Francisco, where he was mayor from 2004 to 2011, Newsom has long been closely allied with real-estate developers, a mainstay of his campaign support. State Treasurer John Chiang, another Democrat running for governor, was also on the Lands Commission when it sued San Francisco.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

@finneganLAT

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