● Update: Santa Clara County has extended the public comment period for Stanford University's general use permit application. Read more here.
As the comment period on Stanford University's proposed expansion winds down, city officials from Menlo Park and Palo Alto are calling for the Santa Clara County Planning Department to give them another 60 days to evaluate the potential impacts of the General Use Permit amendment that the university is seeking.
The two cities, along with the Palo Alto Unified School District and Service Employees International Union, Local 2007, have all requested more time to review the Draft Environmental Impact Report for Stanford's permit application, according to county Planning Director Kirk Girard.
The new permit, if approved, would allow the university to build 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 3,150 housing units and 40,000 square feet of additional building space between 2018 and 2035.
Though the official deadline for the comment period is Dec. 4, that's also the day that the Palo Alto City Council is scheduled to finalize its letter to the county about the impact report. The school district is scheduled to take action on its own comment on Dec. 5.
Girard said he has agreed to extend the period by a few days to allow the cities to submit their letters. He has not, however, decided whether to grant the 60-day extension, which would stretch the deadline to Feb. 4.
"We will grant the extension, the only question is the number of days," Girard said.
He said he expects to announce the decision on the 60-day extension on Thursday night, when the county Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the public's comments on Stanford's application at a special meeting at the Palo Alto Art Center.
Palo Alto made its request for the extension on Nov. 20 in an email from city Planning Director Hillary Gitelman to Girard. She noted that City Manager James Keene had recently had a conversation about the possible extension with several council members and county Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has been conducting his own outreach efforts to spread awareness about the General Use Permit and its implications.
"As always, interest is picking up as the County's initial deadline approaches, and the City needs to ensure that all concerns are heard effectively," Gitelman wrote.
Menlo Park also asked for the period to be extended until early February, in order to "allow the City adequate time to review the Draft EIR and to gather additional community input," according to a letter from Assistant Community Development Director Mark Muenzer.
Simitian told the Weekly that he strongly supports giving the public more time, noting that the Stanford application is unique in its size and complexity.
"I think it's smart to let all these issues come out now, so that they don't come up in the 12th hour," said Simitian, who had also served on the Board of Supervisors in 2000, when the board approved the university's current General Use Permit.
While Simitian said that the scope and complexity of the project warrants the extension, Stanford sees things differently. Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president and director for community relations, agreed that public input is very important to the process but noted that draft EIR was released in early October and has been the subject of more than 20 community and public meetings.
"Staff for the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park have already prepared draft comment letters for their Council's review," McCown said. "We're mystified as to why the request is being made to go beyond what the law provides for, which is a maximum of 60 days."
Stanford Associate Vice President Cathy Palter submitted a letter to Girard urging him to deny the request, calling it "unwarranted" and inconsistent with the requirements of state law. The California Environmental Quality Act grants 60 days for EIR reviews, though it permits extensions in unusual circumstances.
While Simitian and most Palo Alto council members believe the application qualifies as an unusual project, Palter argued that there had been "no procedural problem necessitating a lengthy extension of the comment period on the draft EIR."
"To the contrary, the County has taken every step to ensure that members of the public have been fully apprised of the availability of the draft EIR," Palter wrote.
In arguing against the extension, Stanford may have received some help from Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff, who called Girard last week to discuss the topic.
Scharff said he called Girard because he had questions about how the extra 60 days would impact the planning process. But Girard recalled that Scharff said that he does not believe the 60-day extension is necessary.
"He said he hadn't heard that much demand from his constituents for an extended period," Girard said.
Girard noted that Scharff was offering his personal view, not the council's. Girard also said that he is considering Keene's written request for an extension -- rather that Scharff's comments -- as the city's official position.
Even so, Scharff's call to Girard rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way. This past Monday night, Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Karen Holman both alluded to the impropriety of one council member taking a position that appears to run against that of the entire council.
DuBois told the Weekly that county officials had sent an email to Palo Alto, indicating some confusion about the city's position.
"There was a lot of consternation at the county about the mixed messages they were getting," DuBois told the Weekly.
Holman also said that she believes it's "really important for all council members to support the city manager when he is acting on behalf of the city and asking for the public comment period to be expanded to allow greater participation for the public on a project as big as the Stanford General Use Permit EIR."
"I hope that all City Council members will support the city manager's efforts and not give the county mixed messages from our own community," Holman said.
Scharff said he called the county only after learning that the city staff had requested the 60-day extension. His main goal of the call, he said, was to make sure that county planners will accept the city's comments even if it comes a few days after Dec. 4.
Scharff also said his message was that he believed the council and staff would be able to approve its comment letter without needing 60 days. The extension, he said he told Girard, would be primarily to give community members more time to offer feedback.
Scharff told the Weekly on Tuesday that he has no objections to the comment period being extended.
"I support the extension," Scharff said. "I think it's a large project and I think there's no harm in having the extension.
Others on the council share that position. In arguing for the comment-period extension, Holman noted that Stanford still has about 600,000 square feet of development that it's allowed to pursue under the existing General Use Permit.
"I don't know why there would be any urgent need to get through this process," Holman said. "It makes sense for very practical, reasonable and humane reasons, that Feb. 4 is not an unreasonable extension to ask the county to grant to the residents of adjacent communities, Palo Alto and Menlo Park."