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California agrees to stop suing San Francisco over waterfront zoning limits

Nearly four-year-old fight wrangled who had true legal control over the piers

The San Francisco waterfront. Public Domain

Both the California State Lands Commission and the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that they will settle a nearly four-year-old lawsuit over who has legal oversight of San Francisco’s waterfront, a conflict that was a potential obstacle to large-scale waterfront developments like Mission Rock and Pier 70.

Back in 2014, San Francisco voters passed Proposition B, a measure that gave voters final say over potentially large-scale waterfront build-up:

This measure would prevent any City agency or officer from permitting development on the waterfront to exceed the height limit in effect as of January 1, 2014, unless the City’s voters approve the height limit increase.

The measure defines “waterfront” as public trust property that the State transferred to the City to be placed under the control of the San Francisco Port Commission, as well as any other property that the Port owns or controls as of January 1, 2014 or later acquires.

This measure also would require that the ballot question on the measure to increase height limits on any part of the waterfront specify both the existing and proposed height limits.

Proposition B passed with 58.88 percent of the vote, or 71,421 votes altogether.

But not so fast, said the Lands Commission. As the text of Proposition B points out, the piers are a public trust that the state turned over to the Port. According to the suit filed a few weeks after the vote, Proposition B tried to usurp the proper parameters of that trust:

These lands are now held by the city subject to the public trust and subject to the terms and conditions of the Burton Act.

These lands must be governed by the San Francisco Port Commission for the benefit of all the people of California and not for the benefit of the citizens of the city. [...] California, acting to by and through the commission, retains oversight authority over the land.

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Newsom, announcing the construction of Chase Center in SF in 2012. (The 2017 plaque on the podium indicates the building’s original projected completion date—whoops.)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As it happened, former mayor of San Francisco turned lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom was chair of the Lands Commission, putting him in the oddball position of suing his own city.

As of Wednesday, the state agreed to drop the suit and not hold up developments at Pier 70 and Mission Rock. In exchange:

The City will ensure that future waterfront land-use decisions from City officials include written findings that the approved developments are consistent with the public trust and benefit the people of California. The City will also provide an informational notice in the ballot pamphlet for future measures affecting Port property indicating the measures involve public trust lands.

Both Newsom and city attorney Dennis Herrera hailed it as a win, with Herrera saying that the deal “protects the will of San Francisco voters,” while Newsom declared in a dueling press release that the agreement “accomplished the State Lands Commission’s objective bringing this litigation” and prevent Proposition B from undermining state protections.

A ruling in the suit was forthcoming—the argument went to trial in January—but it now appears that it doesn’t matter. As part of the settlement, the state says it will not challenged Proposition B again.