Frustrated by a permitting process that continues to plague two long-awaited construction projects in the Baylands, furious Palo Alto officials on Monday berated the state agency that they hold responsible for the endless delays.
The City Council on Monday officially gave up on its plan to start the reconfiguration the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course this year when it voted unanimously to cancel all the bids it has received for the project. The decision was prompted by the refusal of the Regional Water Quality Control Board to issue a permit for both the golf-course reconfiguration and for a flood-control project that Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park have been pursuing for more than a decade and that they were hoping to start this year.
With both projects stuck in bureaucratic purgatory and the water board repeatedly demanding more information and proposing new alternatives to be explored, the council unleashed its ire at the state agency, with one councilman making a case that its executive director should be fired.
Both the city and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which is spearheading the flood-control project, have been hoping to start construction this year. These plans were dashed earlier this year when the water board denied the application for the flood-control project and demanded that the agency explore more alternatives, including those that the cities had already considered and discarded as part of their environmental analysis. In July, the creek authority modified the application based on feedback from the water board's Executive Director Bruce Wolfe, who creek authority officials maintain had assured them that the design is indeed the least environmentally damaging and practicable alternative.
In August they received a notice from the water board claiming that even with the new application the project is still incomplete. The state agency demanded more technical information and suggested that the project be split into two phases, with the first phase focusing on protecting East Palo Alto from floods and the rest of the project approved later. Local officials panned this option, noting that most of the funding for the project is coming from the Santa Clara County and that splitting the project into phases would require a new round of environmental studies that would push the construction even further into the future.
"It seems every time we make any progress we hit another roadblock," said Joe Teresi, senior engineer with the Public Works Department.
Rob De Geus, assistant director of the Community Services Department, said the process has been "very disappointing for everyone involved" and noted that both the flood control project and the golf course project bring a "great deal of benefits not only to Palo Alto but neighboring communities as well." The flood project aims to protect the three cities from the dreaded 100-year flood by reconstructing levees near the Baylands and widening the channel in the volatile San Francisquito Creek. The golf course would be reconfigured to enable the new levee design. At the same time, city officials are looking to make the course more attractive and economically viable by replacing turf with native habitats, thereby emphasizing its Baylands location.
In recent months, the city has been stockpiling soil at the golf course in anticipation of starting the flood-control project. As a result, the golf course had to be temporarily reconfigured to accommodate the dirt mounds. Rounds played have dropped by about 30 percent and its revenue losses are projected to grow by $645,000 in the next three years from the initial estimate because of the delays. De Geus said that while the city expected to lose some money during the stockpiling period, it did not expect the extent of the delay.
"It's just not possible to be competitive in the market with the current configuration," De Geus said.
Council members all shared staff's frustration about a process that with every step forward seems to take two steps back. City Attorney Molly Stump noted that the water board hasn't explicitly rejected the projects, a move that would allow local officials to challenge the decision legally. Instead, it has been keeping the process open and merely filing one "notice of incomplete" after another, a process she referred to as "bureaucratic limbo."
"We can be on the treadmill indefinitely," Stump said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman adder her own analogy.
"It is like being held hostage," she said of the permitting process.
Councilman Marc Berman called the water board's latest reaction "an embarrassment" to the project and the process. Enough is enough, he said, vowing to lobby state officials to fire Bruce Wolfe, the water board's executive director whom Berman accused of being unable to come up with a process that's "actually attainable and achievable."
City Manager James Keene noted that the city has actually "lost ground" in the process. Even as the water board continues to assure the cities that they are getting closer in their applications, their updated responses only lead to more questions and concerns that haven't been brought up before. This makes it difficult for staff from both Palo Alto and creek authority to plan either project.
"We're sort of feint of heart now in a lot of ways in responding to the council's questions because our leverage within the process that we have right now seems to be pretty constrained," Keene said.
He also reiterated his view that the approval process has been hampered by water board staff that has been working to undermine the projects by holding private meetings with other stakeholders and urging them to oppose the projects and to support infeasible alternatives. Keene had made similar comments on Aug. 13, when he addressed the board of directors of the regional water board. At that meeting, the agency's board members took umbrage at Keene's accusations, vowed to expedite the process and agreed to let Wolfe (rather than the board itself) make the final decision on the certification. This was two weeks before Wolfe issued the latest notice of incomplete application, filled with a new set of questions and information requests.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said she was puzzled by the failure of the water board to move the projects along.
"That's the biggest puzzle to all of us what seems to be a lack of either understanding, coordination or just downright meanness," Kniss said. "I'm not sure what it is but it's really troubling."