Stanford Plan

Uploaded: Tuesday, October 24, 2000 7 p.m.

Simitian: The man behind the deal
County supervisor ushered Stanford plan through political process

by Jennifer Kavanaugh

Joe Simitian's days as a local political referee are coming to an end in a crunch of meetings, public appearances and critical votes.

Joe Simitian

Within the next two weeks, perhaps two of the bigger milestones in the political career of the Santa Clara County supervisor will come to pass: The Stanford development plan Simitian has worked on for more than a year will go to a county vote at the end of this month, and his campaign bid for a seat in the State Assembly will reach its outcome on Nov. 7, Election Day.

Many local eyes will be trained on Simitian this week and next, as he delivers his verdict on Stanford's development plan, a plan he has helped navigate through a complex political process. And while each of his four supervisor colleagues will vote their own ways, they will rely on Simitian--as the North County's representative-- in making their decisions.

As he and his staff scrambled last week to finish their work on the Stanford plan, Simitian said he wasn't worried about having an election and a volatile issue almost collide within days of each other. He has put his faith in the lengthy process that brought Stanford's plan to this point, a process he and county planners designed to encourage public participation and much negotiation.

"The political fallout has never worried me," Simitian said. "That the process relies so heavily on one district supervisor is fair, and I understand that. And that's OK. This is the job I signed up for."

Emerging from one of largest land-use debates this area has seen, the Stanford plan covers the next 10 years of campus development, including a total of 4.8 million square feet of academic buildings and housing units for Stanford employees and students. The planning process has also pulled in several controversial issues: the fate of Stanford's open space; the impacts new Stanford children would have on Palo Alto schools; and the traffic that could result from the new development, to name a few.

The process started about 18 months ago, with individual groups-- each with their own set of expectations--far apart on the issues.

Menlo Park wanted an exact count of commuters coming in and out of campus and a boundary that stopped academic growth from spreading into the foothills. Environmentalists and Palo Alto officials wanted a permanent ban on building in the open space. The city of Palo Alto also wanted compensation for the effects an expanded Stanford population would have on city facilities. The Palo Alto Unified School District wanted land for a new middle school. The university itself wanted to build on its own land and not lose any space for possible development.

According to several people involved in the process, Simitian encouraged Stanford to meet with these groups and hammer out deals. And while the plan could still change direction, Simitian helped the various parties reach tentative agreements on various issues, including a 25-year limit on building in the foothills, an academic growth boundary, and an actual count of Stanford commuters.

Despite their varied feelings about the plan itself, local leaders involved in the plan credit Simitian with creating a fair process and consulting many affected by new Stanford development.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment, some officials said, was pulling together a coherent plan and negotiating among groups whose prior dealings on land use have been hostile at best, litigious at worst.

"This is not a complete love fest in terms of more of the issues I would have liked to have seen addressed," said Mayor Mary Jo Borak of Menlo Park. Borak said she wanted more specific information on the total limit of development Stanford could sustain and the impacts Stanford's development would have on its neighbors.

"On the other hand, if 18 months ago, someone told me we would have a plan with this level of detail and amount of accountability, I would have been surprised," Borak said.

Borak and other officials said the current Stanford plan was different because the county made the process more accessible to the area, holding several meetings in North County instead of expecting everyone to go to the county headquarters in San Jose.

Simitian also met regularly with leaders from Stanford, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, the environmental community and other parties who would be affected by the plan, such as the Palo Alto school district and golfers who feared they would lose part of the Stanford Golf Course to new housing.

Both Borak and Menlo Park Councilman Paul Collacchi said they were impressed that Simitian would drive up from his San Jose office after work and meet with them to discuss Menlo Park's concerns about Stanford development.

"I don't know very many county supervisors who would have been willing to spend that amount of time and that amount of effort," Borak said.

For a Berkeley graduate, Simitian has also spent a great deal of time at rival Stanford, touring the golf course in a golf cart, talking to people on the Dish hiking area and walking through campus laboratories. The job also influenced his relaxation time.

"I spent my Saturday and Sunday neighborhood walks walking on the campus," Simitian said. "I figured if I was going to take a walk with my wife, we might as well walk at Stanford."

People who met with Simitian throughout the process said the county supervisor was also effective behind closed doors, encouraging Stanford to make peace with three parties who said they would be harmed by the new construction and the extra people who came with it: the Palo Alto school district, the city of Palo Alto and the golfers.

Since the beginning of September, Stanford has offered a choice of land or $10 million to the school district, space for a new community center for Palo Alto and a plan that would avoid building homes on part of the golf course.

"I think that Joe certainly has tried to urge the parties to resolve those issues," said Isaac Stein, president of Stanford's board of trustees. According to Stein, Simitian encouraged Stanford to resolve the issues involving Palo Alto and the golfers so they didn't complicate Stanford's discussions with the county.

For his part, Simitian said he has tried to let the process run its own course, staying neutral during negotiations and stepping in only when he felt it was needed.

"I've tried very hard to keep a lot of my opinions to myself," Simitian said. "It's not my nature to toss rhetorical hand grenades into the conversation. I think it can only get in the way."

Peter Drekmeier of the Stanford Open Space Alliance said Simitian, with his legal degree and planning background, has been well suited to oversee this process.

"Joe is the best qualified to deal with all of these positions," Drekmeier said. "He doesn't jump to conclusions or box himself in. That's unusual for politicians."

Simitian has, however, taken some hits during the process. He said he sat down one day with a local environmentalist, who said the green community suspected the supervisor was giving away too much to Stanford on open-space issues. The next day, he said, a Stanford ally publicly blasted him for siding too closely with Palo Alto and the environmentalists on open space.

"Within a 24-hour period, people from both sides of the issue were absolutely sure that I was in the pocket of the competing interest," Simitian said. "All you can do is smile and shake your head."

And while local leaders have commended Simitian for his work and said the process has permanently altered Stanford's relations with its neighbors, they said they were withholding their final verdicts until seeing the plan's outcome. Simitian said he understood that.

"In the final analysis, the proof is in the pudding," Simitian said. "The quality of the process depends on the decision the board makes."