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Trial begins over SF waterfront height limits as state seeks to overturn Prop. B

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The State Lands Commission is suing San Francisco over Proposition B, which in 2014 gave voters the power to decide height limits for developments along the waterfront.

A trial that will determine whether San Francisco voters will be stripped of their power to decide how tall developers can build along the waterfront began Wednesday with an attorney questioning the decision-making ability of voters.

Joel Jacobs, a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice, said that Proposition B created a “flawed decision-making system” when it gave voters reign over waterfront height limits in 2014.

The State Lands Commission, which manages public land in California including the waterfront and is chaired by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, sued San Francisco over the ballot measure that year.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos must now decide whether to invalidate Prop. B.

Jacobs argued that voters are too uneducated on ballot issues to decide the future of major development projects and limited in their ability to tweak the projects by either voting yes or no on a project. Instead, Jacobs said the Port Commission should be in charge of waterfront height limits.

By forcing developers to gain approval at the polls, Jacobs said Prop. B makes projects more expensive for developers and as a result less lucrative for the San Francisco Port, which is charged with acting in the interests of California as the trustee of the waterfront.

“That is not in the interest of San Francisco, much less California, to be deterring development from The City,” Jacobs said. “And that’s what Proposition B is doing.”

Jon Golinger, a political consultant who has run campaigns against developments on the waterfront, took issue with the argument outside the courtroom.

“They are attempting to put the very notion that citizens in California have a right to govern themselves on trial,” Golinger told the San Francisco Examiner.

“Here, it’s about the waterfront and about the environment, but the argument they’re making is that when citizens are involved in decision-making, they’re ignorant, they’re careless and the decisions are worse,” he added.

Golinger said the point of ballot measures is “to make decisions that politicians won’t.”

Jacobs called Jim Chappell, the former director of the urban-planning nonprofit SPUR, as an expert witness after opening statements. Chappell testified that Prop. B increased risks and costs for developers.

Chappell said developers “count votes” when seeking approval at the Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission or Port Commission by speaking with every member on the board or commission.

Chappell described public hearings as “largely theatre.”

“Unlike going to the voters,” Chappell said. “It’s a complete crapshoot, and there’s no way of telling.”

Chappell said that Prop. B had a negative impact on the developments at Pier 70 and Mission Rock. Both projects were approved with taller buildings under the requirements of Prop. B.

For instance, Chappell said there was little competition between developers to build out Mission Rock, which the Giants developed, because of the anti-development forces behind Prop. B.

But Deputy City Attorney Christine Van Aken, an attorney for San Francisco, used Pier 70 and Mission Rock as proud examples of “how the public trust benefits w

hen The City as a whole collaborates.”

“Just like the public trust is benefited when the people are connected with the waterfront, the public trust is also benefited when the people are connected with waterfront decision-making,” Van Aken said.

The trial is expected to continue until next Wednesday, Van Aken said.

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