A developer whose proposal to build a 23-home community in south Palo Alto was rejected by the city's planning commission last month is now protesting the decision and claiming that the school district's interest in the property unduly influenced city staff.
The city's Planning and Transportation Commission voted on March 23 to recommend that the City Council deny a proposal by SummerHill Homes, LLC, to build a residential community at 525 San Antonio Road, present site of Peninsula Day Care. The plan faced opposition from the nearby Greenmeadow and Greendell neighborhoods, with dozens of residents claiming at the commission meetings that the area cannot accommodate more housing.
SummerHill argued that the project would provide a perfect "transition" between the single-family houses in the nearby Eichler communities and the dense, multi-family housing developments on San Antonio Road. The company also cited the proposed development's proximity to Charleston Shopping Center on Middlefield Road as a good reason for bringing more housing to the area.
SummerHill sought to placate the community by reducing the number of houses from 26 to 23 and by positioning seven one-story houses between the existing residences and the 16 proposed two-story houses.
But the planning commission voted 6-1, with Eduardo Martinez dissenting, to oppose the development, with the majority agreeing that the proposal is inconsistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan and that the area doesn't have sufficient public transportation and amenities to justify the proposed increase in density. The City Council is scheduled to review the project on May 2.
Now, SummerHill is alleging that the commission's rejection had "no reasonable basis." The company's attorney, Michael Patrick Durkee from the firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis, sent the city a letter challenging the commission's denial and arguing that SummerHill's proposal "will conform to the city's planning and Zoning regulations and promotes the city's critical goal of providing adequate housing."
Durkee wrote that the commission's finding that the project is not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan -- the city's official land-use bible -- is "not a basis for denial" because the application seeks to amend the Comprehensive Plan. He calls the commission's denial of the application based on the Comprehensive Plan a "circular argument."
"By definition, an amendment proposal is inconsistent with what it seeks to amend," Durkee wrote.
The letter also alleges that the city's opposition to SummerHill's zone change was influenced by the Palo Alto Unified School District's interest in the property. The Peninsula Day Care site abuts the rear of the Greendell School property, which in turn is next to the district's Cubberley campus. With recent housing growth in south Palo Alto, district officials have been eyeing the 2.65-acre property as a possible site for a new school facility. The day care center is slated to close in May after 37 years in operation.
Durkee claims in the letter that Palo Alto's planning staff has "informed SummerHill that the District's interest in the project site is the primary reason for the City's abandonment of support for the project." To investigate the matter further, Durkee's firm has submitted a Public Records Act request to the city to get more information about the project.
"Based on the events that have transpired, the concern is that the City intends to either delay the application or deny the project so that the District can obtain the Property at a reduced price," Durkee wrote.
Palo Alto planning director Curtis Williams disputed this assertion and said staff's recommendation to oppose the project had nothing to do with the district's interest in the site and everything to do with the city's land-use plans. In May 2010, the council had a joint meeting with the Planning and Transportation Commission in which council members agreed that new developments should be focused within half a mile of fixed rail. The direction will be integrated in the city's Comprehensive Plan, which is in the process of getting revised.
"This was not based on the school-district issue," Williams said, referring to the staff's recommendation to deny the application. "It was based on the Comprehensive Plan direction we got from the council."
Williams said staff discussed the school district's interest with SummerHill, but that the issue did not play a role in staff's decision not to back the project. In fact, at the beginning of the planning commission's discussion, Williams told the commission that the school issue is "not something we can consider as part of our deliberation."
The commission's discussion focused largely on the site's proximity to transportation and the neighborhood's capacity to absorb more housing. Though the 525 San Antonio Road site is about half a mile from Caltrain's San Antonio station in Mountain View, commissioners argued that the train service in the area is insufficient.
The commission also found that the area is not pedestrian friendly and doesn't have enough amenities to justify denser development.
"This is not really a very effective place for high-density housing," said Commissioner Arthur Keller, who made the motion to recommend denying the application.
Durkee wrote in his letter that the commission was wrong to use the council "direction" as basis for denying the project because this direction "does not rise to the level of adopted planning or zoning regulations."
"Thus, the Project will conform to the City's planning and zoning regulations and promotes the City's critical goal of providing adequate housing," Durkee wrote. "The City recognized this and supported the Project until the District expressed interest in the Project site.
"Although Staff and the Commission have attempted to provide justification for their recommendation to deny the Project, none of these justifications have merit, and it is clear that the District's interest in the Project site has caused Staff to withdraw its support for the Project."