SF ballot fight over waterfront height limits has day in court

The City could lose out on more than $8 billion in revenue if a June ballot measure intended to protect waterfront height limits is approved by voters. However, a San Francisco Superior Court judge also could make the entire argument moot.

Proposition B has launched a highly charged land-use battle, as it would impact in the near term three large-scale developments: a new arena for the Golden State Warriors, accompanied by condos and a 227-room hotel on Piers 30-32 and Seawall Lot 330; the San Francisco Giants’ proposed development on Seawall Lot 337 of up to 1,300 condos and commercial space; and a Pier 70 development of retail space and condos, including high rises of up to 230 feet.

But whether voters can have a say on the Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act is up to Judge Marla Miller, who is deliberating on whether to knock it off the June 3 ballot after hearing the dueling sides argue for nearly two hours Monday morning.
The measure, which was placed on the ballot through a signature-gathering effort, would require voter approval of any waterfront development that would exceed existing height limits, which range from 40 to 105 feet.

The plaintiffs — Michael Theriault, a leader of the Building and Construction Trades union; Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition; and Corinne Woods, a nearby resident — were joined by Jack Bair, vice president and general counsel for lawsuit underwriter the Giants.

“You’re putting in front of the people something that they have no power to enact,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney Robin Johansen. “So they are going to go ahead and invest their thoughts, their time, their efforts only later to find out that they couldn’t do that. That cheapens the initiative process.”

The lawsuit argues that restrictions would usurp the authority of the Port of San Francisco, which was entrusted to manage the land under the state’s 1968 Burton Act.

But Attorney Douglas Carstens, who represents measure proponent Becky Evans, a member of a San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club, said that while legal questions could make for a complex case that shouldn’t preclude the June vote.

“Let the voters have their voice,” Carstens said. “It could be ended at the election in June.”

The City Attorney’s Office is not taking a position on the pre-election challenge.

The Department of Elections has an April 2 deadline for printing ballot materials, which means a decision on the lawsuit is expected as early as this week.

Among the arguments in favor of the measure’s legality is the fact that voters have weighed in on 18 waterfront ballot measures in the past, including a March 1996 measure that allowed the construction of the Giants’ home, AT&T Park. But Johansen noted that “not one of those initiatives was ever challenged.”

Johansen referenced an analysis of the measure written by Port Director Monique Moyer that said the three developments could generate about $8.5 billion in revenue, which the measure could delay, reduce or eliminate.

“Those revenues are an essential part of the ability of the Port to meet its responsibilities to manage and rehabilitate these public lands,” Johansen said.

After Monday’s hearing, campaign coordinator Jon Golinger called the Port’s analysis “wild speculation” and said its management responsibilities could be met within existing height limits.

Golinger cited rehabilitation of the Ferry Building, the new Exploratorium and the new cruise ship terminal as successful recent projects that stayed within constraints.
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