How much additional development could the Stanford University campus handle?
That's the question Palo Alto and Santa Clara County officials hoped would be answered in Stanford's "Sustainable Development Study," a detailed, map-heavy planning document that analyzes Stanford's growth potential over the next quarter century. Stanford would need to get the county's approval for the study before it could proceed with any major new developments on its campus.
But on Thursday, Liz Kniss, president of the county Board of Supervisors, wondered whether the timeline should have been pushed even further. Echoing concerns previously expressed by Palo Alto and San Mateo County officials, Kniss wondered why Stanford didn't look beyond 2035.
"I'd be far more comfortable if you came up with a 2050 horizon," Kniss said at Thursday's meeting of the board's Housing, Land Use, Environment & Transportation Committee. "I realize we cannot impose it, but I think it's the kind of area that would not only give you ample flexibility, it would give a great deal of comfort to the neighbors to have that horizon."
Kniss and Committee Chairman Donald Gage opted not to issue any recommendations to the full board, virtually ensuring that the issue will re-emerge at the board's April 7 meeting.
When the board requested the study in 2000 as part of Stanford's General Use Permit (GUP), its directive stated that the study "shall identify the maximum buildout potential for all of Stanford's unincorporated Santa Clara County land." It also specified that the study "will address issues of resource protection with a view beyond the 25-year time frame of the AGB (Academic Growth Boundary)."
But the study doesn't specify how far beyond the 25-year timeframe the study should stretch. Hence the confusion.
Last month, the Palo Alto City Council drafted a letter to the county detailing the city's concerns about the list. Topping the list was the timeline issue. In an earlier council discussion, Mayor Peter Drekmeier, Vice Mayor Jack Morton and Councilman Pat Burt all argued that the timeline should be extended.
But Stanford has consistently argued that extending the timeline further would force the school to speculate too much. Charles Carter, Stanford's director of land use and environmental planning, argued in a March 5 letter to the county that most long-range and general plans use 20- to 25-year horizons and said Stanford simply can't predict what the campus would look like beyond 2035.
"Stanford considered whether it would be possible to evaluate campus buildout over a longer study period," Carter's letter stated. "The SDS explains that due to unpredictability of the University's finances and the fact that the cutting edge of innovation in advanced research moves at a pace and in directions that are difficult to foresee, Stanford cannot plan campus land-use patterns beyond a 10- to 20-year horizon.
"Put simply, there is no way to know whether programs at an institution like Stanford will grow in size, hold constant, or shrink beyond that limited view."
On Thursday, Stanford officials made a similar argument and noted that the university settled on the study's parameters only after lengthy consultation with county staff, who agreed on the 2035 horizon.
"Stanford conducted the study in cooperation with the county planning staff," Larry Horton, Stanford's director of government and community relations, said. "Stanford staff and county staff sought to ensure the study would comply with GUP conditions."
The county staff report also pointed out that "forecasting beyond the 25-year timeframe becomes less reliable, difficult to validate, and becomes more difficult to anticipate the University's needs as technology, academic programs and the structure of providing higher education change," the report states.
But Kniss made it clear that the 2035 horizon wasn't what the county had in mind when it approved Stanford's GUP in 2000. She also suggested that future studies should include measurable performance standards for Stanford's sustainability and energy-efficiency efforts.
"There are no targets, no benchmarks, no measurable goals," Kniss said. "I think it's important that the GUP does have measurable goals."