The first test of whether Santa Clara County policymakers are willing to back up the recommendations of its planning staff on strong mitigation measures for Stanford's future development plans will come next Thursday, when the county Planning Commission is expected to vote on Stanford's application and proposed conditions of approval.
At issue are conditions that require Stanford to "fully" mitigate impacts created by the approval of 3.5 million square feet of new development on the campus over an estimated 20 years. Not surprisingly, the greatest conflict is over housing and traffic requirements, which Stanford believes create unfair, unprecedented and potentially illegal demands on the university.
But more generally, Stanford is attempting to persuade the public and county officials that it isn't being treated fairly and is being held to a higher standard than other property owners or developers. Let's put that notion to rest so that the substance of Stanford's concerns can be the focus.
Stanford is the only large private employer located in unincorporated county land. It has chosen not to have the campus incorporated into the city of Palo Alto and is therefore overseen exclusively by the county. No other large private institution or company has been given the benefit of operating under a 20-year development permit that exempts it from review of projects as they come along.
Stanford benefits immensely from this arrangement, as does the county and public, because it results in careful advance planning and avoids disputes and political battles over every new building. If Stanford didn't believe it benefited from the current once-every-two-decade review by the county it could always opt to bring its projects in for approval one at a time.
Instead of trying to paint a picture of unfairness, Stanford needs to acknowledge this beneficial special treatment and focus on the impacts and how they should be mitigated. Its current strategy appears more designed to throw up as many objections as possible and to influence public opinion than to work constructively to achieve the broad goal of full or nearly full mitigation of the development it desires.
Although the seven-person Planning Commission's action is only a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to make the final decision later this year, a split vote by the commission could fuel Stanford's efforts to undermine its own supervisor and board president, Joe Simitian, and seek a needed majority of three votes from other supervisors.
Such a tactic would be fraught with political danger. Stanford has already engaged in an erratic and ill-considered strategy for cultivating public and political support that has mostly boomeranged. The university has on multiple occasions made assertions in public that differ from statements sources say it has made privately, leading to diminished trust among those whom it needs to achieve approval.
The most glaring example of Stanford's political ineffectiveness was its attempt to reach an agreement with the Palo Alto school district that was conditioned on the approval of a development agreement with the county. The move was carefully calculated to circumvent a promise to not enter into any such deals and to curry favor within the Palo Alto school community. But the university didn't consider the fall-out — antagonizing Simitian, the person most influential in the county general-use permit (GUP) process, and the county's decision to discontinue discussions about a development agreement.
Stanford now finds itself needing to press its objections to the proposed county conditions while trying to calm the controversies it has created. While some modifications of the proposed requirements after considering Stanford's concerns are inevitable, the county staff and its consultants have done an outstanding job at firmly yet fairly coming up with appropriate conditions of approval. Stanford's most persuasive case lies in the transportation area, where new measures to ensure no growth in traffic throughout the day may simply be unachievable given the other requirements.
Lost in the debate over the details is the fact that county planners are recommending approval of all the development Stanford has requested. If Stanford finds the required mitigation measures too onerous, then it always has the option of reducing the size of its proposal.
One of the good things that has come from this process is that Stanford and the county are engaged in a fully transparent debate of the merits of the proposed development conditions instead of negotiating behind closed doors.
That's a far better process for the public than private meetings in which a development agreement is hammered out and then presented as a fait accompli for approval by the full Board of Supervisors. That has never been done before by the county, and this shouldn't be the first time.
The Planning Commission meeting, its third on the Stanford application, will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 27, at the County Government Center at 70 W. Hedding St. in San Jose.
• Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian sits down with Weekly staff to discuss the key areas of contention around Stanford University's proposed expansion on "Behind the Headlines." Listen to the discussion now on our YouTube channel and podcast.