8/28/2012 Council Summary – All About Land Use

A very long night that focused on land use issues.

We started the evening with two hours worth of board and commission interviews.  Hey, folks, we still have a vacancy on the most important commission, the Board of Library Trustees.  Let’s get some applicants!

We then went into our general meeting.  We started out with announcements, and there were a couple.  One involved a citizens working group for the Stevens Creek Trail Joint Four Cities Committee.  Kris Stadelman, NOVA Director, handed out material that NOVA produced as part of its rapid response program.  The Democratic Club of Sunnyvale is having a forum on the upcoming state propositions at its next meeting, run by the League of Women Voters.

The minutes, list of bills, and second reading of the BMR ordinance were pulled from the consent calendar, and the balance of the consent calendar was passed on a 7-0 vote.  Then there was some confusing sequence that I didn’t fully follow, which resulted in the list of bills being passed on a 6-1 vote (I agreed).  The balance was delayed until the end of the meeting.

There were multiple public speakers, one involving the discussion of new library proposals, one involving CalPERS, one thanking all of the people who contributed to making the Sunnyvale Centennial a success.

Then came item 2, consideration of a request to authorize general and specific plan amendment studies for a block on North Mathilda.  This is a block that currently has office buildings but is zoned for residential with some density.  The owner was requesting to make two changes, one to study increasing the allowed density, one to study removing a frontage road requirement attached to the blocks on Mathilda.  There has been some confusion related to this item, because one of my colleagues had a letter published in the Sunnyvale Sun which unfortunately made some incorrect assertions about the nature and motive behind the request, as well as some misplaced allegations of bad faith.  But for the most part, it appeared that the members of the public who attended weren’t influenced by the misinformation.  Well, that is, one of the speakers was highly critical of the colleague who wrote the letter to the Sun, and that resident was pretty blunt in expressing his displeasure.

One of my colleagues recused himself because he makes use of office space on the property in question.

The focus of the discussion was on the density bonus increase that the owner/developer was requesting.  The frontage road issue was discussed only briefly.  The existing specific plan requires any development of that block to support a new 33′ frontage road paralleling Mathilda, basically to allow parking and pick-up/drop-off without interfering with the Mathilda traffic.  In looking over the issue, staff is apparently questioning the necessity of that requirement, so they recommended authorizing an amendment study on that issue.  But the applicant also wants to boost the density of that property by about 35% above what’s permitted.  And even worse, one of my colleagues pointed out that if that increase were to be approved, there’s another 30% or so in added density that could be done on top of that, if the builder were to take advantage of green building and affordable housing bonuses.  So, huge density above what is already allowed there if we agreed to the study.

There were a number of comments and questions about the density aspect from my colleagues, and there were a fair number of comments from the public as well.  The applicant made their case for their requests, but there wasn’t much justification for the density increase other than “we really want it”.  So after a fair bit of discussion, the motion was made and seconded to approve staff recommendation – to authorize the amendment study regarding the frontage road, but not to approve a study of increasing density.  There was some discussion, and then an amendment was proposed to additionally approve a study to increase the densityThe amendment failed on a 2-4 vote (I dissented), and then the original motion passed on a 4-2 vote (I agreed).

This one wasn’t that tough for me.  The density request wasn’t right for the neighborhood.  The frontage road requirement may be wacky, and there may be some opportunities for pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly improvements on Mathilda if we re-examine that requirement.  The developer simply wanted something that wasn’t in the city’s best interests.

Item 3 was a long discussion of a small item – an appeal of a Planning Commission decision to permit a variance regarding a garage conversion.  In short, a property owner illegally and unknowingly converted half of his garage into an office, someone apparently ratted him out, so he tried to get a variance to make it legal.  Staff said no, the Planning Commission sort of said yes, and a colleague appealed the Planning Commission’s decision.  It turns out that the colleague talked with the City Attorney, who discovered that the specifics of the Planning Commission’s decision probably couldn’t legally be enforced.  The PC tried to give the owner a variance just for him and going away if he ever sells the property, and we’re not permitted to do that, by law.  The basis for the problem with the conversion is that the property owners are required to have two covered and two uncovered spaces, to ensure residents don’t depend on street parking.  And a garage conversion creates street parking dependencies.

We spent a fair bit of discussion about how we got to this point, what things are like in the neighborhood, and what our options are, and we ended up pretty limited in our options.  In order to provide redress, we had to be able to make three legal findings (extraordinary circumstances, no negative impacts from a variance, and so on).  One of the findings in particular was pretty much impossible to make, as it turns out.  So after much agonizing, the motion was made to grant the appeal and overturn the Planning Commission ruling, which requires the owner to unconvert the garage.  There was some discussion, and the motion passed on a 6-1 vote (I agreed).

Sometimes, this job really sucks, and this was one of those times.  I really wish we could have helped the applicant, because what he did was reasonable under his circumstances, other than failing to get the work permitted before doing it.  But any variance from the city would have applied to the property, not the owner, and subsequent owners could abuse the variance and create problems for neighbors, which is required to be a consideration when we pass variances.  And that tied our hands.  Staff worked hard to come up with alternatives that would meet the spirit of the requirements, but none of them panned out.

Item 4 was another somewhat contentious issue – resolving the sale of three city-owned houses on Jackson Street next to Murphy Park.  That block has seven houses along the park, and the city bought the first three in the hopes of eventually expanding the park.  But over 30 years, the city made no progress in acquiring any of the other four properties.  And the three that the City owns happen to be the three worst properties to own if expanding the park is the goal – they can’t meaningfully expand the park by themselves.  For this reason, two city managers have recommended abandoning the effort and selling the property, and two councils have voted to do so – as soon as the real estate market rebounds to the point where the city isn’t selling itself short.  That brought us to this point.

In looking over our sale options, staff developed two options.  The first was to simply sell the properties to the highest bidders using the standard surplus process for city-owned property.  The second was to enter into an agreement with Habitat For Humanity, sell the property with them, and work with them to convert it to affordable housing.  In both cases, staff recommended putting the proceeds into the Park Dedication Fund, which would legally require us to only spend the proceeds on capital park purchases (buying park land or park equipment).

The speakers were really diverse.  One was one of the city’s renters (two of the three houses are currently rented, the third is vacant), who spoke emotionally and effectively about the city’s failure as a responsible landlord, about the poor condition of the house, and about her future if the property is sold.  It was really disheartening to hear how the city has mismanaged that property as a landlord.  One was a neighbor and owner of one of the other four houses, who spoke favorably of the neighborhood, encouraged selling the three properties, and described the city as the slumlords of the neighborhood.  She also made it clear that she intends to pass her home to her (very small) children some day, and she doesn’t intend to sell in the next two generations.  A couple spoke about the opportunities that would be lost if the city sold the land, since park land is hard to acquire in Sunnyvale.  We then went to voting.  The initial motion was Alternative 2 – pursue an agreement with Habitat For Humanity to sell the land and develop affordable housing, which I seconded.  After some discussion, the motion passed on a 4-3 vote.

This is another one of those difficult choices.  With this land, we had three options.  One was to keep doing what we’re doing – have $1.4 million in city assets tied up in these properties and hope to pick up enough other properties to make a park expansion possible.  One was to expand the park with what we have and hope to pick up the properties.  And one is to abandon the plan and use the money towards park opportunities elsewhere.  I looked at the failure over the past 30 years to acquire those four houses, plus the one speaker’s comments that she’s not going to sell in the next two generations, and I didn’t like the first option.  I looked at what it would mean to tear those houses down now and extend the park, and I didn’t like what it meant to the existing neighbors.  Surrounding their houses with park would turn them into islands in the middle of the park (as that one homeowner specifically said), destroy their privacy, and basically be a hostile act by the city that was not much better than simply invoking eminent domain and taking their homes.  I couldn’t support that.

But I did like the idea of pursuing opportunities elsewhere.  After 30 years, the money we’ve spend on those properties hasn’t created a single square inch of new park space.  And as difficult as the property market is in Sunnyvale, I have no doubt that we will find a park opportunity elsewhere in the city long before a Murphy Park expansion could ever be done.  By putting the money in the Park Dedication Fund, we are bound by state law to only use that money towards a park capital purchase.  There’s no chance that we or some future council could misuse the money towards operating expenses.  One of my colleagues asked one speaker a very on-point question – if thirty years isn’t too much time to pursue a Murphy extension, then how much time would be too much?  How many more years do we keep pursuing this before we finally say “enough is enough”?  And I just saw no end to this, not if we’d failed to come close to our goal after 30 years.  The Murphy plan was probably a good notion when it was first started, but three decades later, it’s time to look elsewhere.

Item 5 involved the city’s ballot for the League of California Cities Peninsula Division offices.  With basically no discussion, we approved supporting all of the uncontested positions, plus our own Councilmember Davis for the one contested (at-large) position on a 7-0 vote.

Item 6 involved the city’s position on League of California Cities hot-button issues for this year.  One involved desert land that we don’t have any interest in.  The rest we have some interest in.  Most noteworthy was that staff revised their recommendation on one issue.  A couple of conservative southern cities have gotten it into their heads to get the League to push to change AB 32, the state’s global warming mandate.  Staff’s initial response was “we’re already working to comply with AB 32, so we should take no position on it”.  After a couple of us questioned that statement, they changed it to “we’re already working to comply with AB 32, so we should oppose the proposed League position”.  So a motion was made to adopt staff’s proposed positions on the initiatives, and it passed on a 6-1 vote (I agreed).

That was about it.  We had some oral comments, which included my reporting that I’ve been elected Chair of the County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission, taking effect when current Chair Jamie McLeod is termed out of office in a couple of months.

We’re off for Labor Day week.  Next meeting will be September 11th, when we’ll have appointment of boardmembers and commissioners, a vote on the controversial proposal regarding bike lanes on Pastoria, a day care Planning Commission appeal, and possible changes to city codes regarding taxicabs.

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