Monday, November 26, 2007

Committee for Green Foothills comments on potential City Council instructions for a Development Agreement with Stanford

(We sent the following to the Palo Alto City Council as it prepares to give instructions to staff on how staff should negotiate with Stanford.


November 26, 2007

Palo Alto City Council

Dear Mayor Kishimoto and City Council Members;

The Committee for Green Foothills appreciates the opportunity to help provide input to City staff regarding the Stanford University Medical Center and Shopping Center expansion proposal. As an organization dedicated to open space and natural resource protection with a history of Stanford involvement that dates back to our founding, we hope to see the best possible environmental mitigations in the forthcoming EIR and the best environmental benefits as part of the development agreement.

City staff are entirely correct in saying “community benefits and mitigations negotiated by the City as consideration for the Development Agreement are not limited to the mitigations required under CEQA. Mitigation required under CEQA should not be confused with the community benefits and mitigations negotiated by the City in exchange for the Development Agreement.” (CMR: 427:07, page 2.) Stanford has requested significant deviations from current zoning standards and requested the City relinquish its right to apply more stringent standards in the future. The City, in return, can request environmental benefits that the City needs. Technical requirements such as “proportionality” and “nexus” are immaterial to the Development Agreement. Instead, the issue for the City Council is to how to negotiate an agreement that is the best one for the community.

The best agreement embodies a symbiotic relationship between Stanford and the broader community: Stanford gets the facilities it needs without harming the environment, and Palo Alto supports a high quality of life and a wonderful environment that attracts people to come use Stanford’s facilities. The worst agreement from Palo Alto’s perspective would have Stanford simply taking what it wants in terms of massive development while requiring the broader community to shoulder the impacts.

To obtain the best agreement rather than the worst agreement, we urge the City to start with Mayor Kishimoto’s November 7th Op-Ed in the Palo Alto Weekly. Everyone, including Stanford, has an obligation not to make climate change worse, and requiring a no-net increase in emissions and car trips is essential to this. The housing problem pointed out by the Mayor is both an open space and a greenhouse gas issue, as well as a social justice issue – if no increase in local housing is provided, open space will be consumed elsewhere, and the workers will have to commute in on Palo Alto’s roads and nearby highways. Creation of sufficient housing, including low-income housing commensurate with the demand created for that housing, should be part of the overall package.

Mayor Kishimoto also properly acknowledges the need to protect open space. What Stanford proposes is essentially a trade-off: the university wants a significant increase in the density and height of development in places that benefit Stanford’s plans. The community, in return, should get a benefit of a reduction of unwanted development in places that should be open spaces – the foothills, creeks, and nearby areas. It would be entirely appropriate for this to be in the form of conservation easements on Stanford lands, but purchasing easement on other nearby lands could also serve the same purpose.

The Committee for Green Foothills has no opinion on whether the basic permissions sought by Stanford are appropriate and necessary, as these medical issues go beyond our expertise. What is within our expertise and clearly needed, however, is protection of the environmental values held by our community and at special risk from massive development. If an agreement should go forward, these values – protecting against climate change, providing a full amount of housing, and protecting open space – are essential components to a good agreement.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Excellent Metro article on The San Jose Process

This Metro article does a great job of discussing the systematic problem San Jose has in conducting environmental reviews:

The thing is, the science of predicting environmental impacts that haven't actually happened yet is highly interpretive.

"A lot of areas in EIRs are fuzzy," says Gary Binger, urban planning professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "There's a lot of subjectivity."

That's why many public agencies choose their environmental consultants carefully in order to minimize the potential for bias.

Prior to 1996, developers wanting projects approved by Santa Clara County could hire a consultant directly and submit the results of the study with their application.

"How can there be bias when that happens?" county Planner Rob Eastwood points out sarcastically. "No, just kidding."

Then-county Supervisor Joe Simitian changed the practice in 1996 in order to avoid conflict of interest and public criticism. Now county officials stick to a list of environmental consultants that are screened with questions like: "During the preparation of a Draft EIR, how would you respond if a project proponent directly pressures you to change a conclusion, minimize an impact, or otherwise influence the findings of the EIR?"

Many other cities and counties in the Bay Area follow a similar process: they hire consultants directly so the paychecks come from the public agency (although the money gets reimbursed by project applicants). The developers also have little or no input in choosing the consultant.

Of the eight cities Metro surveyed in Santa Clara County, San Jose was the only one that allowed developers to contract with consultants directly, essentially giving them the freedom to pick whomever they wanted to conduct the environmental studies.

We hope San Jose will listen!


P.S. For those wondering - yes, I've since watered the plant in the picture.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"...when you look at (home) prices relative to income, it's completely insane."

The quote above is from an economist saying existing home prices have to fall because they're priced out of reach of people's income.

This just further supports our argument that Coyote Valley's Draft Fiscal Analysis was fatally flawed in assuming housing prices (and resulting tax revenues) will go up 2% faster each year than income, every year for 57 years. The economist linked to above says the ratio between housing costs and income is already unsustainable. To think this unsustainable ratio could be made much, much worse, and then sustained at that level for decades is simply ridiculous.

This is why we think it's wrong for San Jose to hire analysts that were already selected and hired by developers to do an analysis of the developers' project.

Monday, November 12, 2007

CGF and Climate Change

We occasionally get asked about how our work relates to fighting climate change. I'm recopying below a short email response I wrote on this subject:

The main thing is that we fight sprawl, the car-use-maximizing, environment-destroying driver of climate change.

We've written about climate change here:

We've submitted critical environmental comments on bad projects that point out the climate change effects. We've opposed many logging projects which have climate change impacts. We've supported natural flood plain protection as opposed to dams, pumping, and still more streamside development. We've supported initiatives that reduce house sizes, which waste energy.

And we've proven that environmentalists can win victories, just as the environmental values will win and stop climate change.