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Manhattan Beach City Council to Bring Back Highrose/Verandas Issue

Jan 12, 2023 08:47AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

The proposed Verandas project (facing along Rosecrans Ave. in Manhattan Beach). Image via Project Verandas.

The Manhattan Beach City Council will bring the Highrose/Verandas apartment development back for discussion on Thursday, January 19

The city had rejected the proposal back in October, but will bring it back following a lawsuit, a warning from the state, and closed-door discussions.

The Highrose/Verandas project had been proposed as a 96,217 square-foot, four-story multifamily residential structure at Highland and Rosecrans. The design called for 79 units, six of which would be set aside for "very low income" households. It had drawn vocal opposition from many residents, who had said that it would take away from the small-town character of the El Porto neighborhood and make traffic and parking issues significantly worse.

Although the City Planning Commission had approved the project - and city staff had advised a "yes" vote given the rules around that type of development - the Manhattan Beach City Council voted it down in October on a vote of 3-2. Mayor Steve Napolitano was joined by then-Councilmember Suzanne Hadley and Councilmember Joe Franklin in voting "No" on the project, while then-Councilmember Hildy Stern and Mayor Pro Tem Richard Montgomery voted in support of the project.

Napolitano said at the time that his final decision came down to what he said would be an "adverse impact" to health and safety of potential residents due to the proposed development's proximity to the neighboring Chevron refinery in El Segundo. The refinery has been shown to be a major polluter of the region, he said, and there is no feasible way to mitigate the risks as long as the refinery is operating. "Something will go there [in the Highrose/Verandas space] sometime; there will be traffic, there will be other impacts, but it shouldn’t be housing," he said.

Napolitano acknowledged at the time that whether the city voted "yes" or "no" on the project, legal challenges were sure to follow either way.

Plan Had Been Rejected on Basis of Environmental Concerns

In voting "no" on the project back in October, Napolitano rejected the "simplistic notions of some that we could deny this project simply because a lot of people don’t like it, or it doesn’t fit in with the character of our town, or it doesn’t fit in with our small-town atmosphere and low-profile development."

"While all of those things may be true, and I wish we could deny it based on those things, courts don't care about what we feel or what we like, they care about the law, and the law doesn’t allow for that in this case," he said at the time. "People are lining up to sue us, and that’s fine... but not if we don’t have a leg to stand on. To deny this project because a lot of people don’t like it is like bringing a spoon to a knife fight. It just does not work. We need a legally defensible reason to deny this project."

Napolitano acknowledged that many opponents had cited AB 2011 - legislation that overrides ministerial review (a simple up or down vote of whether it meets guidelines) of affordable housing developments located within 3,200 feet of a refinery. However, AB 2011 only applies to state review, and the city's rules on ministerial review would still apply, he said. (Plus, the AB 2011 provisions would not be applicable retroactively, given that AB 2011 did not go into effect until the beginning of 2023.)

Nevertheless, he said, the concerns that AB 2011 raised about the health and safety of living in close proximity to a refinery bolstered the city's ability to claim that there was a "specific, adverse impact" to health and safety for the project, thus giving the city what he considered a legal opportunity to deny the project.

Backlash to Council's "No" Vote

Shortly after the council's vote, the project's developer, Highrose El Porto LLC, filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the city seeking damages and attorney's fees.

Additionally, Californians for Homeownership, YIMBY Law, and California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) indicated that they intend to begin litigation against the city if the City Council did not “rehear” the project. 

Furthermore, California's Department of Housing and Community Development served the city with a “Notice of Violation” regarding the City Council’s decision.

With these threats in mind, City Council members met in two closed sessions in December to discuss the issue with its legal counsel.

"A point has been reached where, in the opinion of the City Council on the advice of its City Attorney, based on existing facts and circumstances, there is a significant exposure to litigation against the city," read a statement from the city in its agenda for those closed sessions.

At its January 19 meeting, the City Council "will consider the project again," according to a notice sent out by the city. 

City Had Rejected Previous Appeals

The Project Verandas proposal used state "density bonus laws," which allow developers to request waivers from development standards, such as setback and height requirements, when they incorporate affordable housing into a project. Under these terms, the Verandas project qualified for a streamlined, administrative, non-discretionary review.

Draft renderings of the proposed Highrose project, as provided by Withee Malcolm Design Studio.


Despite vocal opposition to the project by an active group of residents, the project had moved through various stages of approval, with city officials saying that the project met the appropriate requirements for this kind of housing development.

In June 2022, Manhattan Beach's Planning Commission voted unanimously to uphold the Community Development Director's approval of the Verandas project, turning down four appeals from members of the community.

At its August 16, 2022 meeting, the City Council had a chance to evaluate five formal appeals filed by residents. City staff walked council members through a presentation in which they outlined reasons for rejecting each of the five appeals. The council heard hours of discussion on the topic, then voted to continue the discussion before making a final vote.

In September 2022, the city of Manhattan Beach issued a statement to "clarify the project proposal, review process, and standard of review."

The statement effectively attempted to refute widely circulated points opposing the Verandas project. The city declared that the project:

1) Is a multi-family residential project, not a hotel, or short-term lodging;
2) Is in the Coastal Zone and therefore regulated by the Local Coastal Program, which allows such plans through a streamlined permitting process;
3) Is not an SB 35 project;
4) Is exempt from CEQA (environmental review) because it is subject to the ministerial review process (and two environmental site assessments have been done even though not required). 
5) Has had two environmental assessments that found that there were no conditions detected on the site that pose a threat to the environment and/or human health and that "the [Chevron] Refinery is not considered to represent a significant environmental concern to the site."

City staff also released a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal to numerous public comments made against the project. That rebuttal can be seen on that City Council meeting agenda, under Item 2, "City Responses to Additional Public Comments."

The issue was originally set for a vote in September, but was abruptly withdrawn from the agenda, according to a statement from the city, "to address residents’ concerns and questions, and consider legal options."

Environmental Assessments Had Been Conducted

On its Highrose/Verandas information page, the city notes that environmental assessments of the property had been conducted by contractors hired by the developer.

Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) were performed by Citadel EHS, an environmental, health, safety and sustainability consulting firm. The ESAs outlined the current and historical uses of the proposed Highrose/Verandas site in order to determine if these uses had impacted the soil or groundwater beneath a property, and whether these impacts posed a threat to human health and/or the environment.

The ESAs documented that the property was never part of the Chevron site. Furthermore, the ESAs included a subsurface investigation that involved soil samples and review of relevant databases. 

The Phase I and Phase II ESAs concluded that there were no conditions detected on the site that posed a threat to the environment and/or human health. Based upon the Phase I and Phase II ESAs, Citadel EHS concluded that “the [Chevron] Refinery is not considered to represent a significant environmental concern to the site at this time.”

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