Uploaded: Thu, Jun 26, 2014, 9:36 am
Despite permit snag, Palo Alto approves funds for golf course revamp
Council slams regional water board for denying permits for flood-control and golf course projects
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.
Posted by resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm
I am in complete agreement with you that a municipal golf course is a nice idea and that it can even pay for itself and profit. I think we should do it. But how we do it matters, because I think saving the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and the homes of over 400 low-income Palo Alto residents -- and the community within our community there -- is the priority.
If we take a little more time with the golf course, get the permits, raise money through private sponsorships and donations, we could even do better than the plan on the table. And we could also save the Buena Vista Mobile Home park, because there time is of the essence. They need the money now.
I'm not suggesting it be a gift, I'm suggesting the City handle saving the park in a way that actually ends up costing the City nothing, allows the residents to pay or otherwise gives them time to come up with other solutions to finance the park. Buy it and give me and the neighbors 5 years to figure out how to crowdsource repaying the City it's part, and we will do it. (Hey, we just won a land use referendum on a shoe string against a host of powerful, well-moneyed parties. This will be easy, especially since it's more positive.)
On my side of town, we just went through a whole year where our lives were not our own because someone wanted to put a large 4-story development and upzoned/high-density 2- and 3-stories buildings in the middle of a residential neighborhood, for 60 apartments of low-income housing, with the reasoning that the need was desperate so we all needed to make sacrifices, i.e., my neighborhood needed to make sacrifices, even to the safety of kids going to school. Chief among those telling us to sacrifice were the City Councilmembers, whose staff even verified to the state and feds for funding applications that the rezoning had taken place and that there were no CEQA appeals when in fact the rezoning had never taken place and there was a CEQA lawsuit (among many other misrepresentations by City staff). Few people realize that PAHC was awarded over $5 million based on those misrepresentations of our City, and some other project in a less-wealthy town in California did not get its funding and may not have been built (actually, probably more than one project since PAHC was asking for so much more than the usual - they had to give the money back but the funding decisions were not revisited this season) because of our City's misrepresentations.
During the Maybell debates, the City made many impassioned pleas for how important it was for us to have affordable housing in our City. The Maybell development would have had 60 units max, and since there was never a market study, it was unclear whether the segment to be served was really going to meet the needs we actually had for seniors, since other BMR senior units in town had been empty for years. (Certainly reasons were given for this languishing housing stock, but those who gave them ignored that the situation underscores the necessity of understanding the market BEFORE sacrificing to produce the costly housing.)
Neighbors who care about affordable housing were called NIMBYs over and over again by other neighbors and continue to be, even though most of them hated being put in the position of having to just oppose a bad plan for the neighborhood and wanted a working group like the one that resulted in the 92-unit affordable Terman Apartments in the same neighborhood.
Once Measure D finished, we expected the City to pursue affordable housing as vigorously as they had the Maybell development, for which they even loaned $7.2 million for the purchase of the property and were intimately involved in the purchase contract. That $7.2 million drained our affordable housing fund, and we expected the money could now be used to help the residents at BV.
Buena Vista Mobile Home Park has over 400 low-income residents, who are NOT in high-cost subsidized housing, but are actually property owners in the last patch of truly affordable housing in the area. We can help them without a costly subsidy, too.
Our City has made a strong case for the need to have affordable housing within our borders. BV is existing, truly affordable housing. We don't need a market study because the residents are existing Palo Alto residents, a cohesive community within our community.
Instead of ultimately costing tens of millions of dollars to put in 60 subsidized spaces like at Maybell, saving BV could be an investment that ends up making the City money in the end, while saving the affordable housing. The City has already set a precedent of co-owning expensive residences, as we found it does with our FORMER city manager (not even currently working for the City).
*****I'm not suggesting at all that we do one instead of the other. Yes, I think we should improve our municipal golf course, I'm not for a minute suggesting it's one or the other, really.*****
But the situation at BV is urgent, and the clock is ticking down for the residents while the City does nothing. They have been telling us they don't have the money. But they apparently do. It's making it look very much like they pushed so hard at Maybell in order to tie up the funds (and our residents) even as they knew what was happening at BV (our mayor during the Maybell situation also being the former head of acquisitions for Prometheus, the developer trying to evict the residents at BV and develop an upzoned property there).
When we have asked the City to step in at BV, we are told they don't have the money, or we are met with just silence. If they just committed an equivalent amount of money as they committed at Maybell, which is now available since it wasn't built (and Mayor Shepherd herself has said the money could be used at BV) plus co-owning the property to the tune of $9 million, there would be a competitive offer to buy the park. In fact, if we assume the property is worth more now that it was when Prometheus bought it, then the seller could actually take a write off for the difference between the value now and the $31 million the residents would have to offer (14.5+ 9 +7.2) (which is more than Prometheus is paying), because of selling to the nonprofit residents' group. The City arranged just such a situation with the Maybell sale.
The golf course doesn't have a permit just now anyway. Wouldn't it be better to take the time to do that even better, and use the money to save the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park NOW? Give us over here a chance to do that, to save BV, and we will drum up volunteers to help raise money for the golf course (like we drummed up historic levels of citizen involvement to protect our neighborhood residential zoning).