With little fanfare and much frustration, Palo Alto officials authorized this week spending more than $9 million on an ambitious overhaul of the city's golf course, even as they acknowledged that work may not begin for some time because of a lingering permitting snag.
In authorizing City Manager James Keene to enter into a $9 million contract with construction company Duininck, Inc., members of the City Council teed off on Monday night at the Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency that has so far declined to issue needed permits for both the golf course reconfiguration and a long-planned flood-control project that includes building a levee on the golf course.
Though the council approved the contract, Keene acknowledged that work will not commence unless the permit is acquired. The city's bid for the work is set to expire on July 14, while the council is on its annual break. But while the golf course reconstruction remains in limbo, officials were more concerned about the flood-control project, which aims to protect the particularly vulnerable downstream area from the volatile San Francisquito Creek. The project includes rebuilding levees and widening a channel. In February, the water board surprised the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (which includes officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, the San Mateo County Flood Control District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District) with the news that its permit application is denied without prejudice.
The board had also declined to give the city a permit for the golf course renovation, arguing that the two projects are too closely linked and that the golf course project cannot be authorized until the design is finalized for the flood-control project. In denying the permit, the water board expressed concerns about the project's impact on the marshy Faber Tract in East Palo Alto and called for the creek authority to evaluate other alternatives, including use of Palo Alto Airport land and creation of a detention basin upstream. The creek authority has been discussing the latter option with Stanford University (which owns the upstream land), but has argued that this should not be a condition for the more urgent work downstream.
During a brief discussion Monday, Councilman Larry Klein noted that the water board had ample opportunity to offer its concerns during the review process for the Environmental Impact Report. Instead of doing that, staff decided to simply deny the application and issue numerous requests for further alternatives and information. Klein called the board's history of delays "quite astonishing."
"While I want to believe in their good faith, I'm really dubious about it, quite frankly," Klein said.
Councilman Greg Scharff said he is "very disappointed" with the water board's action. Every year, around December and January, the threat of flood returns to Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, he said. In February 1998, both cities experienced heavy flood damage, prompting the creation of the creek authority and kicking off plans to boost flood protection.
"Frankly, this kind of delay stopping the JPA project, stopping it from going forward -- if that happens, it's really on the water board," Scharff said. "The flooding that can occur in East Palo Alto and Palo Alto is a serious issue it's not something to sit on and delay."
His colleagues shared this view. Mayor Nancy Shepherd called the permitting delays "the epitome of why people don't like government." Councilman Marc Berman called the water board's actions "incredibly irresponsible" and criticized the agency for "delay tactics that are frankly putting in danger residents of three different communities: Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park."
The delays pose a particular danger for East Palo Alto, which is located in the most flood-prone area of the creek.
"Bringing up new problems every month and not responding to our requests -- it's irresponsible and it's dangerous and it's going to have to stop at some point," Berman said.
Councilman Pat Burt, who represents Palo Alto on the creek authority's board of directors, blamed the water board for its "constantly shifting rationale for not proceeding with the permit." "Unabated" requests for more information and new alternatives to be analyzed have prompted the creek authority to question the water board's motive, Burt said. For months, the creek authority has been told that the water board is "getting close" to approving the project, only to return with more requests for information.
"There is a widely held opinion among the members of the JPA governing body that these are not genuine questions or misunderstandings," Burt said. "They are designed to extract as much of the golf course from the city as possible, even if we have a project that is environmentally and water-quality beneficial as it stands."
The creek authority has filed an appeal with the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the regional boards, but asked that its complaint be held in abeyance while it continues to negotiate with water board staff over the permit. Keene said he has requested a meeting with Bruce Wolfe, the regional board's executive director, in the next week to discuss the outstanding issues.
"My hope is that the information we shared and our effort to engage directly with the water board executive officer could lead us to be able to obtain a permit that we think we clearly deserve right now," he said.
If the permit delays keep Keene from signing the construction contract, he will return to the council in August to consider the city's next steps.