When Palo Alto received an offer from developer John Arrillaga in 2012 to purchase a 7.7-acre site of publicly owned land next to Foothills Park, most officials were surprised that the undeveloped site even existed in a city they often refer to as "built out."
The City Council's subsequent effort to learn about the site, which included private tours and a closed session to consider Arrillaga's offer, elicited a stinging backlash from the public and a scathing Santa Clara County Grand Jury report, which criticized the city for not following its own rules about selling of "surplus public land" -- a process that includes notifying other city departments and public agencies.
On Monday night, in its latest effort to address the June 2014 report, the council amended its rules by adopting a section dealing specifically with unsolicited offers. The change comes a month after the council adopted a policy calling for a public council vote before going into any closed session, a rule change that was also sparked by the Grand Jury report.
By a 7-0 vote, with Councilmen Tom DuBois and Greg Scharff absent, the council specified that unsolicited offers that the city manager deems worthy of further discussion will be referred to the full council. If the council chooses to declare the site a surplus property, there will be an open council hearing and public council vote. Furthermore, the amended policy includes a new statement calling for city properties to be "broadly marketed using appropriate modes of advertising, including electronic media."
The council adopted the changes after a brief discussion and little debate. Vice Mayor Greg Schmid was the only council member to express some concerns, arguing that the new policy may not go far enough to facilitate an open and public process.
He proposed a clause calling for the city to provide public notice of any deed restriction or easement on the property (the 7.7-acre site, which was donated to the city in 1981 by the Lee Family trust, was restricted to conservation purposes, including park and recreation). The council agreed to adopt the additional language.
Though Arrillaga's offer to buy the former quarry site quickly fizzled, its ramifications are still playing out. In addition to tweaking its rules for unsolicited offers, the council is still trying to determine what to do with the land that few in the city knew about before the offer. Last year, to comply with Lee's deed restriction, the council officially dedicated the site as public parkland.
At the same time, the council remains uncertain about how to develop the newly discovered open space. Last August, Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the site currently resembles a "dust bowl" rather than a "pristine parkland." And while a few of her colleagues advocated for reopening it to the public sooner rather than later, staff is now urging a more cautious approach.
The Parks and Recreation Commission was set to consider Tuesday, Feb. 24, a proposal not to open the site to the public until a hydrology study is completed around Buckeye Creek.
The study, according to a staff report, would "analyze and find solutions to the historic channelization and resulting down-cutting and erosion problems" around the creek.
Community Services Department staff recommended that the study "be completed before developing permanent plans and investing significant funds to construct any facilities on the site that might limit some of the possible recommendations and solutions that will be proposed by the hydrologic plan."