Stanford University officials have asked the Santa Clara County Planning Commission to delay hearings on their major campus-expansion application, citing concerns the county's proposed conditions of approval are "unworkable and infeasible."
Stanford Associate Vice President Catherine Palter delivered on Thursday a sharp letter to the planning commission criticizing the county for failing to give Stanford a "meaningful opportunity" to provide feedback on the approval conditions before they were publicly released in March. The conditions are subject to approval by the county Board of Supervisors as part of the application approval.
Stanford's application seeks to add 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 3,150 housing units, 40,000 square feet of child care facilities and other support space by 2035. But a three-page summary of the conditions, proposed by county staff and made public in March, would require the university to build more housing, step up its monitoring of traffic and submit future development plans for review, among other stipulations.
"As currently presented, the conditions summary is headed in an unworkable direction," Palter wrote, calling any deliberations on the approval conditions "incomplete and premature."
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who is part of the development-agreement negotiation team with Supervisor Cindy Chavez, pushed back on that characterization.
The detailed 100-plus page conditions of approval will be released in two weeks and then be subject to public hearings, where the university can also provide its feedback, he said.
"It's hard to fathom how the university can decide the conditions of approval aren't achievable ... when you haven't seen them yet," Simitian said Friday. "The university wants the chance to roll back the meaningful conditions of approval before they see the light of day. That's not in the public interest."
Among the biggest changes proposed by the county in the new conditions is a significant increase in housing for faculty and staff. Stanford had proposed to build 2,600 student beds and 550 units of housing for faculty and staff.
The county's conditions call for an additional 1,622 units of faculty and staff housing, for a minimum of 2,172 units, along with the 2,600 student beds that Stanford had applied for. At least 70 percent of these units would have to be built on campus under the proposed conditions.
Stanford's letter criticized the alternative housing plan proposed by the county for the general use permit as counterproductive and creating "more significant, adverse environmental impacts" than the university's application.
Palter said that a team of Stanford and county representatives was created to work on the approval conditions and collaborated through last May, when the county said the university would be able to review a draft of the conditions last August — "a date that slipped monthly until this April," the letter states.
Palter said university officials were told more recently that they would first see the final, detailed conditions of approval in a staff report for a May 30 planning commission hearing.
Palter asked the planning commission to instead hold a study session on the draft conditions of approval as well as on as a set of draft development-agreement terms before proceeding with hearings.
Stanford and the county started negotiations in the fall for a development agreement that would have governed the university's expansion, but talks were suspended indefinitely in April after Stanford and the Palo Alto school district announced a separate agreement under which Stanford would pay the district $138 million to account for the university's expansion and its projected impact on district enrollment. Their agreement was conditional on approval of the county's broader development agreement, prompting Simitian to call the deal "regrettable" and halt development-agreement negotiations.
Palter asked in her letter that county staff return to the table with Stanford to negotiate a development agreement "that provides substantial public benefits beyond those that can be achieved through conditions of approval, in exchange for providing certainty that Stanford will be able to complete its proposed project over the long term."
She called the collaborative process "the norm in other jurisdictions," though Simitian disputed that assertion. Developers typically submit applications that are reviewed by county or city staff, who prepare a report that's reviewed by governing bodies — without negotiations on the side.
"This is the norm. This is the way land use matters are handled up and down the state," Simitian said.
Palter in her letter highlighted several areas of concern in the county's conditions of approval, including phased approvals of building plans and future studies, which "would create tremendous uncertainty" for the university's future growth.
"If the permit leaves future academic expansion in a state of ambiguity, Stanford will be unable to front-load valuable benefits such as providing hundreds of units of affordable housing now, ahead of job growth," Palter wrote. "It is not viable for an applicant to fund costly up-front community benefits knowing that it might not be allowed to complete its project over the long term."
The conditions of approval's traffic requirements — including an expansion of the hours that traffic going to and from campus are monitored — would be "impossible to implement" and restrict the community's use of the campus, the letter states.
But Simitian said Friday that he and Chavez met with Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Vice President Bob Reidy on Friday, May 3, to state that the county would be willing to reopen talks if they are open to the public and guarantee the same benefits to the Palo Alto school district that have already been negotiated. On Wednesday, Simitian said, Tessier-Lavigne and Reidy responded that they wished the negotiations to be in private and proposed lesser benefits to the district, which Simitian said would be unacceptable.
Late Friday afternoon, the school district released a May 10 letter from Reidy asking the district to pause their proposed agreement discussions "to be consistent" with Stanford's request that the county planning commission delay its hearings. Staff are recommending the board approve this request.
The county issued a press release Friday evening stating its intent to continue with the general use permit hearings as scheduled.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to hold three hearings on the general use permit: May 30 at 6 p.m. in the Palo Alto City Council Chambers (250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto) and June 13 and 27, both at 1:30 p.m. at the Isaac Newton Senter Auditorium, County Government Center (70 W. Hedding St., San Jose).
The Board of Supervisors is tentatively set to start its own study sessions and hearings in September.