11/20/2012 Council Summary

A very long night.

We started the evening with two study sessions.  The first one involves looking into “retooling” our zoning code.  In short, staff believes the existing zoning code is too cumbersome and can be streamlined without changing our actual policies.  There are some 44 different types of approval that staff identified, which they want to simply into 20 different types, while improving the code language and streamlining the process.  This should benefit pretty much everyone – developers, who have to navigate a maze of incomprehensible wording, residents, for whom even a simple application can be overly complex, and staff, who will hopefully have to do less work to deal with applications.  We’ll see what happens with it.

We then had a study session involving our intergovernmental relations assignments.  There are a few minor changes that might happen, but most changes happen in election years, not in the in-between years, so it should be pretty straightforward this year.  We’ll vote on it in January, I believe.  None of mine change, and I think I’ve got the biggest list right now (sigh).

We then went to the general meeting.  No special orders, no presentations, no announcements.  The list of bills was pulled and the balance of the consent calendar was passed on a 7-0 vote.  There were no public comments of real consequence, so we got down to business pretty quickly.

Item 2 involved changes to our mobile home park conversion ordinances.  This is a challenging issue, because mobile home parks have issues that normal housing doesn’t have.  It’s a unique situation where one entity owns the land, another owns the housing on top of it, and both depend on the other (the owner on rent from the tenant, the tenant on access to the land by the owner).  Mobile home values can decline more than they increase, unlike traditional homes.  And it’s a situation where an outside individual has direct influence on the value of the tenants’ home.  A park owner can allow the property to decline, which decreases the value of the tenants’ units.  The situation is so odd that the state has actually stepped in and taken most enforcement rights away from cities for themselves.  We cannot even enforce fire code issues.

We’ve got some controls already in place.  Most mobile home parks are zoned for mobile homes, meaning the city would have to rezone the property before it could be developed.  The general plan requires the city to maintain at least 400 acres of mobile home parks, and we’re at 413 acres now, meaning that only the smaller parks could even conceivably be converted according to our general plan.

But the residents of Fairoaks Park have had some issues in their park, timed just right to be concerned about this ordinance.  And that park is small enough to make conversion feasible.  So the residents have been talking with us to make sure their concerns would be met.  After a lot of discussion about the issue, we got to the issues.  An initial motion was made to approve alternatives 1 and 3 – accept staff’s proposed changes to the ordinance, and also consider amending the general plan to rezone existing mobile home parks to be mobile home parks zoning.  But after some discussion about bifurcation, this was changed to be just alternative 3, and that passed on a 7-0 vote.  After this, I moved alternative 2, accept staff’s recommended changes, but increase the compensation percentage from 85% to 100%, and to accept some language that the City Attorney proposed that would give the appraiser the right to increase the calculated value of a unit if it was evident that the property had been deliberately degraded by the park owner.  And that passed on a 4-3 vote.

We then looked at some variations that staff gave us in case we were interested.  One was to require the relocation specialist to be directly supervised by the City, which I seconded very quickly.  I believe that passed 7-0.  That was good, because if we approve a conversion, we need to make sure the city is aware of exactly what’s going on.  Another was to allow for a right of negotiated purchase, and I think that one also passed 7-0.  The third was to expand the potential 24-month rent subsidy to also include low-income households, and I think that one passed 6-1 (I agreed).

The residents made a couple of very compelling points to us that swayed me.  The existing policy really emphasized relocating mobile homes to other parks, but in practice, that’s impractical.  There aren’t spaces available, the homes often cannot survive the move, parks won’t accept homes that are too old, insurers won’t allow owners to relocate, and mortgage lenders often won’t permit it either.  In a way, I thought that the existing code gave owners a lot of false hope about relocating.  I think buying out is going to be the more common result, and owners should be protected in that event.  I think we did a pretty good job of protecting the individual owners, and the bar for converting a park is now pretty high.

The biggest concern was really how we could protect the tenants against the case of an owner deliberately devaluing the property prior to a sale.  Honestly, under the circumstances, an owner would have to be of the highest integrity before he wouldn’t think about pulling something to encourage residents to leave.  It’s just too much to his advantage to act otherwise.  So having that kind of protection was clearly important to all of us up there.

Item 3 involved approving a contract for overseeing the bidding and sale of the Raynor Activity Center.  This wasn’t really a policy issue, it was mostly a process issue.  But of course there was some eagerness to revisit the whole issue of selling the property, so we spent a lot of time rehashing the issues of sale.  After some discussion, I moved to approve the proposed contract, and that passed on a 4-3 vote.  The issue hasn’t really changed, this was only a procedural step and not much else, so approving it made the most sense.

Item 4 was a big one, approving a general plan amendment study to look at putting in more Moffett Towers near Mathilda and 237.  These issues always scare me a bit, because they’re so huge, and there’s so much money involved, such a huge potential impact on the city, and so on.  It’s just a big decision with effects that will likely last for 50 years.  This one was a bit easier, because it’s just to approve a study.  The actual decision about allowing the project will occur sometime later, if at all.  These studies frequently just disappear or result in no project at all.  There was a housing study off of San Aleso a couple of years ago that I really didn’t like and voted against, and it just up and vanished after the majority approved it.  Anyway, the discussion was very long because of the scope of the change that may be involved.  After the discussion ended, a motion was made to approve staff’s recommendation, Alternative 1, approve the study as proposed.  And there was a lot of discussion among ourselves about this one, but it passed on a 5-2 vote (I agreed).

This is going to be a big decision, whenever it comes back to us, and it won’t be an easy one.  Our Moffett Park Specific Plan allows for a big chunk of development to still happen, and this project doesn’t increase the amount of development that’s allowed, but it will concentrate it in one area.  This is both good and bad – bad because it’s already a traffic problem, good because it’s traffic that wouldn’t be in actual residential neighborhoods.  Approving it would mean jobs and revenue for city services, and the resulting housing demand will increase property values.  But it will also increase the housing demand, traffic will degrade quality of life, the Monster Interchange will be worse, and so on.  There will be some other interesting considerations.  One is that even without our approval, the developer could build buildings to about 60% of what’s proposed without requiring council approval, just based on the zoning that is already permitted there.  So this won’t be an easy call for anyone.

Item 5 was similar – studying a general plan amendment to allow housing in the NW corner of Fair Oaks and 101, where an abandoned industrial building currently sits.  The most surprising aspect of this is that everyone pretty much agreed that this should become housing, but there was debate about the density.  This lot is not being used now, it’s blight, and the neighbors would prefer it become something else.  They seem to like housing, but how much would be good can be argued.  We listened to some neighbors and the applicant, plus one resident who is concerned about the impact on schools, and then we got to voting.  An initial motion was made and seconded to approve alternative 3, study up to High Density housing.  That was very quickly followed by a proposed amendment to include consideration of up to Very High Density (effectively a substitute motion for alternative 2, just in a different form).  After some debate, that amendment passed on a 4-3 vote (I agreed), and then the original motion passed on a 4-3 vote (I agreed).

I’m not sure Very High Density is appropriate for this site – maybe, but maybe not.  But if we’re going to do a study anyway, we might as well explore all options.  What I really didn’t like was the procedural stuff.  It wasn’t good dealing with it as an amendment.  It would have been better to either do a straight substitute motion (which I hate, too) or to simply vote the motion down and pass alternative 2 straight.  But that’s a difficult situation, and it’s very easy in that circumstance for a vote to go awry when someone gets confused and votes the wrong way.  Any attempt to propose a better procedural approach would have made things more confusing, so it wasn’t a good situation.  Anyway, for both this one and the previous one, my bar is pretty low.  Studies are good, and they don’t cost the city anything, so I need to be pretty convinced I could never support some proposed change before I’ll oppose a study, regardless of reservations about the overall project.  I think I’ve opposed one study so far, maybe two.  The projects themselves are a different matter, of course.

Item 6 was a quick and dirty one – a proposed amendment to our CalPERS contract to allow the miscellaneous units to go to a 2%@60 second tier.  We’re up against a deadline here, thanks to the Governor’s pension reform plan – we have to enact it by December 31st or we lose forever.  No joke – the state legislature seriously hosed us on this one, under the guise of “helping us”.  We have “me too” agreements from all of the other bargaining units, and if the final unit agrees in time, we’ll get this tier in place by the deadline.  Nothing’s written in stone yet, but the unit in question approved of us taking this action, in anticipation that we may need it.  And it passed on a 7-0 vote.

We then returned to the list of bills, which, as usual, passed on a 6-1 vote (I agreed).

That’s it for the regular agenda.  We had IGR reports next, and I did have one significant one.  It was revealed at our last BAWSCA meeting that there are huge cost and project overruns for the replacement of the Calaveras Dam.  As part of the earthquake and safety retrofitting project that is being done to the northern California water supply, the Dam is being replaced – they’re literally building a new and bigger dam just on the other side of the existing dam, at a cost of $400 million, to be completed in 2016.  Unfortunately, over the past couple of months, it was discovered that one area of the dam has instability that was never detected before now.  And there are no alternative locations for the replacement.  The net result of this is that the project will cost an additional $130 million and incur another 25 month delay before completion in 2018.

We’re off for two weeks until December 4th.  At that time, we’ll have a study session on the East Sunnyvale ITR area and possible land uses (I think this is the Spansion property), possible rezoning of a property on West Fremont, an issue involving downtown parking, and the comprehensive school traffic study.

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