Deal wipes away waterfront height limit stalemate

San Francisco reached a settlement with the California State Lands Commission Wednesday, settling a yearslong dispute over how development projects on public waterfront property would be regulated.

The commission, which manages public access rights on state-owned land, sued San Francisco in 2014 following the passage of Proposition B. The ballot initiative, passed by 59 percent of voters, required any exceptions for existing height restrictions on the city waterfront, including land owned by the Port of San Francisco, to be approved by San Francisco voters.

Proposition B was passed on June 3, 2014, and the State Lands Commission sued a month later, arguing that the measure conflicted with state interests by giving a say in the height of new buildings on public land to voters, who may make arbitrary decisions not based on the best interests of the city or state.

In particular, the State Lands Commission was concerned about two large development projects approved by San Francisco voters: Pier 70 and Mission Rock.

As part of the proposed settlement announced Wednesday, the State Lands Commission would not challenge the validity of Proposition B as applied to either of those projects. The State Lands Commission also would agree to partner with the port to improve seawalls to prepare for earthquakes or the effect of climate change and to work with the port to facilitate construction of new affordable housing.

San Francisco will acknowledge it is subject to certain state laws in planning development projects and that any future changes to land use or zoning will include findings that the changes are consistent with the public trust.

The Board of Supervisors will also consider passing an ordinance that would add language about the public trust to future ballot initiatives changing height restrictions on public land.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former Mayor of San Francisco, drew protests for his role as chair of the State Lands Commission after the lawsuit was filed. Newsom said in a statement Tuesday:

“Common sense prevailed and I’m pleased that hard-working and dedicated staff have agreed on a settlement solution that I’ve long-called for. … Through this agreement, we’ve accomplished the State Lands Commission’s objective in bringing this litigation: to prevent Prop B from creating a precedent weakening environmental protections statewide.”

Interim Mayor Mark Farrell called the settlement:

“a win-win for our voters, the City and the State. … The San Francisco waterfront is an iconic feature of our City and an integral part of our history. … With this agreement we can move forward with measures to support affordable housing, strengthen our seawall and carry out improvements that will continue to make the waterfront a world-class resource for all our residents and visitors.”