The Palo Alto school board backed on Tuesday a strongly worded letter that calls a new Santa Clara County draft environmental impact report on Stanford University's planned expansion "legally inadequate."
The letter, penned by an outside attorney, blasts the county for failing to fully "inform the public and public agencies like PAUSD about the project's environmental impacts" in the updated environmental impact report (EIR), which the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development released in June.
"PAUSD requests that the county revise the draft EIR to identify and mitigate all of the project's environmental impacts and that the county recirculate the entire draft EIR so that the public has the opportunity to understand and meaningfully comment on the project's environmental effects," attorney Karen Tiedemann of Oakland firm Goldfarb & Lipman wrote in the district's draft letter.
Stanford is seeking a new general use permit to build 2.275 million square feet of new academic space by 2035. The university has proposed adding 3,150 units or beds; the new county study considers two alternatives that would require a total of 5,699 (in Housing Alternative A) or 4,425 (in Housing Alternative B) units or beds.
The district is taking issue with the county's conclusion that no mitigation related to schools is required. The letter asks the Planning Department to revise its report to "meaningfully" address the potential impacts, both direct and indirect, on the school district.
The district's draft letter asks the county to provide a greater level of detail on an "unspecified" amount of off-campus affordable housing Stanford has proposed to build within a half-mile of any major Bay Area transit stop, which the county acknowledges would "disproportionally" affect Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View.
The county made made "no effort to quantify the effect this planned housing" would have, Tiedemann wrote, leaving "readers to guess how much housing is actually proposed under the project, where such housing would be developed and what effect such housing would have."
The district is also asking the county to identify concrete, "enforceable" actions that could be taken to mitigate the potential impact of this off-campus housing. The letter characterizes the offered mitigation as "vague and indefinite" — so much so that it "amounts to ... an abdication of the responsibility to identify and incorporate feasible mitigation that would reduce a projects (sic) impacts in an EIR."
The letter also criticizes the county's examination of the two additional housing alternatives, which have not been proposed by Stanford.
The county "should be clearer about what development scenarios are feasible and acceptable to Stanford so that it is not necessary to review different sets of impacts, requiring different mitigation measures, for projects with vastly different approaches and development footprints that may never come to fruition," Tiedemann wrote.
The letter also asks the county to correct an outdated student generation rate used in the report, which understates future district enrollment and thus related mitigation, Tiedemann wrote. The county made its calculations based on a rate of 0.5 children per household, while the district believes a 0.98 rate is conservative but appropriate. (The original rate came from an enrollment forecast that has historically been unreliable in the district.)
The district hopes the county will revise the updated environmental report to address direct as well as "secondary" impacts on the district, such as potential traffic and safety concerns or the need for a new school to accommodate increased enrollment. Board members asked Tiedemann on Tuesday to make clear in the letter that the district places high value on providing its students access to their neighborhood schools.
Board member Todd Collins has expressed concerns publicly about the project's potential financial impact on the district. At a meeting on the recirculated draft environmental impact report last week, Collins noted that because Stanford's rental properties are tax-exempt, the school district doesn't receive any property-tax revenues from the university. Collins said that absorbing the estimated 275 new students who would move in under Stanford's permit plan would constitute an annual school-district expenditure of $5.3 million, without any revenues to offset the cost.
Collins said that with Housing Alternative A, which would bring 1,500 students to the school district, the district would see $27.8 million in annual unfunded costs.
On Tuesday, Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president of government and community relations, said that the university has its "own concerns" about the additional housing alternatives the county is studying. It's "confusing to the community to make a lot of assumptions about what may happen," McCown said, "and arrive at some very large numbers ... without acknowledging the fact that it's a totally undetermined question."
"It is not the application of Stanford at this point in time," she told the board.
She noted that Stanford's property-tax exempt status is not new and that there are non-exempt Stanford properties, such as on-campus faculty housing, that generate a significant amount of revenue for the school district.
The board agreed that Tiedemann should submit the letter, largely as written with the addition of the value of neighborhood schools, by the county's July 26 deadline.
The board unanimously authorized staff to spend up to $20,000 on legal services related to the development of its response letter.