Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Huntington Beach must comply with California housing requirements, judge rules

Surf City can't refuse to plan for more housing because of concerns over violating the California Environmental Quality Act, a judge in San Diego ruled.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A judge in San Diego ruled that Huntington Beach has to comply with California’s plans to build more housing across the state to alleviate the state’s housing crisis, even in exclusive coastal areas.

California sued Surf City for refusing to adopt a state law intended to boost affordable housing as rent and home prices perpetually increase. The law requires municipalities to outline how they'll allow for the construction of a certain amount of housing units, especially lower-income units, in their general plans. It also streamlines the process for adding "in-law units" to single-family homes and for subdividing residential lots into multifamily housing projects, like duplexes and triplexes. 

Huntington Beach refused to process applications under the new rules, according to the state's lawsuit. The city argues that the law doesn’t apply to charter cities like itself and is pursuing free speech claims on appeal in the Ninth Circuit. It also says that following the state mandate would force it to violate environmental laws like the California Environmental Quality Act.

In her Wednesday order rejecting those arguments, Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal noted that the state created an exemption under the environmental act for when a city needs to make determinations based on its analysis of housing needs.

“This is not to say that the city's environmental concerns are not warranted," Bacal wrote. "Rather, the city can both acknowledge the serious environmental concerns while also citing that it is legally infeasible to do anything other than comply with its obligation as to the regional housing needs allocation.”

The judge added that she was bound by an appeals court ruling that charter cities have to follow the state’s housing laws. In addition, the Ninth Circuit told the court to vacate a stay that was previously in place and to proceed with the state’s case.

Michael Gates, the city’s attorney, said Huntington Beach will be filing an appeal soon. 

“We believe that it is legally infirm because there is a misapprehension of applicable law,” Gates said. He accused the state of telling cities to ignore environmental laws.

“The state is proudly trampling CEQA, and saying the environment doesn’t matter, and all that matters is high-density housing along the coast,” Gates said. 

Bacal also denied the state’s complaint for declaratory relief that Huntington Beach is not in compliance with the California Housing Element Law because “declaration is not necessary under the circumstances,” she wrote.  

In a press release, California Governor Gavin Newsom celebrated the ruling as a win for the state’s efforts to get municipalities across to build more housing. 

"From day one, my administration has been clear: local governments must be accountable for following state law and planning their fair share of housing. That's what this case has been about from the start, and we will continue to focus on accountability," Newsom wrote. "We can't solve the decades-in-the-making crisis around housing without everyone doing their part, and this result makes clear the state is serious about enforcing the law."

California's feud with Orange County’s famous coastal town over its housing laws has been bitter and multifaceted. 

In November 2023, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit the city filed against the state in a bid to wriggle free of its legal obligation to build 13,000 additional housing units in compliance with the state’s efforts to build more affordable housing. 

"Huntington Beach is not above the law — that's the essence of today's ruling. Local governments up and down our state should take notice," California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a press release. "We are facing a housing crisis of epic proportions, and my office will continue to act with great urgency, working with cities and counties that genuinely want to be part of the solution and holding accountable those that do not."

Categories / Government, Regional

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.