Though the fate of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park remains cloudy, residents of the sprawling El Camino Real park received a sliver of good news Tuesday night when the Palo Alto City Council agreed to raise the financial compensation that they would receive in exchange for eviction.
After a five-and-a-half hour discussion, the council unanimously affirmed the decision by Hearing Officer Craig Labadie to approve the Relocation Impact Report, which lays out the relocation compensation that would be provided to residents when the park closes. The document is a key component of the application, initiated in late 2012 by the Jisser family, the property owners, to shutter the mobile-home park.
Yet even in approving the document, the council added a long list of conditions and modifications that would significantly alter it in ways that favor the residents. The biggest change was a requirement that a new appraisal be conducted for the Buena Vista mobile homes and that this time the appraiser consider the impact of being displaced from Palo Alto schools.
The Relocation Impact Report that was approved by Labadie last fall excludes schools from consideration, a point of deep contention between the park owners and the Buena Vista residents. The council's decision sets the stage for another hearing next month, at which time the legal clash over relocation assistance will resume.
Tuesday's hearing was the council's second of two nights on the topic of Buena Vista's closure. For yet another evening, hundreds of Buena Vista residents packed into City Hall, wearing black T-Shirts that stated, "Save Our Homes." Once again, the Council Chambers was filled with yellow stickers and hand-held signs, though this time the crowd began to dissipate as the discussion dragged on into the late hours of the night.
The tone and the substance of Tuesday's discussion was strikingly different from Monday's. While the first day was filled with emotional, at times tearful, testimony from dozens of Buena Vista residents and their supporters, the second day was dominated by legal wrangling by attorneys and intricate, paragraph-long motions from the council. At the heart of the debate was the methodology used for appraising the properties and the role of schools in determining compensation for residents.
The council found itself in a highly unusual position Tuesday, more akin to a judge scrutinizing a highly technical case than a legislative body setting policy. Its task was to consider the appeal from the Buena Vista Mobile Home Association, which contested Labadie's approval, saying the Jissers' offer isn't sufficient to allow the residents to find comparable housing elsewhere. The Jissers' attorney, Margaret Nanda, argued that her client has the right to close down the park and he has followed all the local and state rules associated with the closure.
Council members made it clear in their early comments that their decision wouldn't rest on their personal views but rather on narrow legal issues. Councilman Marc Berman called Tuesday night "probably the most difficult night I've ever had on the council.
"Often as a council member I'm free to let my values dictate my vote, and I've been comfortable and confident with all the votes I've cast. ... Tonight, my values are pleading with me to do everything I can to stop the closure of Buena Vista and to keep the residents in place," Berman said, with a crowd of Buena Vista residents looking on. "You all are important to the fabric of our community. We're losing that socioeconomic diversity, and I'm worried that we're losing it permanently."
Yet he noted that Tuesday was "different" from other meetings.
"Tonight, I'm not here to make policy decisions. Tonight, my job is to determine whether the state law and the city ordinance is being followed," he said.
Councilman Greg Scharff likewise called the Tuesday deliberations "difficult," conflicting with his desire to save the largely low-income and Hispanic community of about 400 people. But he struck a hopeful tone, referencing behind-the-scenes efforts by nonprofit organizations to buy the park and preserve it.
"No matter how the council votes today, one of the things the public should know is that it's not a vote to close the park, but really the beginning of saving the park," Scharff said. He said he looks forward to future community discussions about "how we can save Buena Vista."
Councilman Eric Filseth told the crowd that while no one wants to close the park, the park owner is not responsible for maintaining the city's socioeconomic diversity. Yet he also acknowledged the park's closure would hit its residents hard.
"I don't think there can be any misinterpretation of the human suffering that's going to happen if the park closes," Filseth said. "A lot of these Palo Altans are not likely to find housing anywhere near Palo Alto, in some cases even in the Bay Area. Children in Palo Alto schools will be uprooted and taken elsewhere."
While the council's affirmation of Labadie's decision was in some ways a victory for the Jisser family, it could turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. The list of conditions that the council appended to its approval was long, substantial and largely responsive to the wishes of the Buena Vista Residents Association. By the time the council finished crafting its list of requirements, the Jissers' visibly exasperated attorney was threatening to take the city to court.
At the heart of the debate was a simple question with an ambiguous answer: Does the city's ordinance require schools to be considered in the relocation compensation package? The Jissers believe it does not. The residents say it does.
The city's ordinance is not clear. It requires the park owner to provide the residents with adequate compensation to afford housing in a "comparable mobile-home park." Such a park would have to be "located within a community similar to that in which the park that is being closed is located and has similar access to community amenities such as shopping, medical services, recreational facilities and transportation."
Attorney Nanda noted that the ordinance does not include "schools" in its list of amenities. Councilman Cory Wolbach countered that it does include the words "such as" and that they effectively broaden the list of amenities to include other items that are not specifically called out -- most notably, schools.
"The purpose of including expansive language is to allow for consideration at a future time of items that may not have been included in a specific list," Wolbach said.
Nadia Aziz, an attorney representing the residents, agreed and argued that the listed amenities are meant to be examples. Palo Alto's schools should be included in consideration of compensation, she argued.
"If you look at what makes Palo Alto Palo Alto, it's the schools," Aziz said. "When you look for housing, in particular in Palo Alto, they list which schools are closest to the real estate listing. The reason why prices are so high here is because of schools. That's a factor that needs to be in consideration when you look at comparable housing."
It was Councilman Pat Burt who ultimately proposed to add "schools and safety" to the scope of factors that would have to be considered in a new appraisal. The council also required the park owner to complete a survey of rents in jurisdictions around Palo Alto and spelled out a process for the homeowners to submit supplemental data to the hearing officer in response to the updated appraisals.
The proposal to revise the scope of the appraisal met a sharp rebuke from Nanda. She explicitly reserved her right to go to court to appeal the council's revisions to the appraisal's scope. The council, she argued, is effectively rewriting the law.
"You're changing the process and the procedure of the ordinance itself," Nanda said. "I don't think you can change the ordinance against my client like that."
With its unanimous vote, the council extended the debate over the relocation assistance into next month. Even so, several members acknowledged early in the meeting that the residents are about to face some difficult times.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that the closure process is "very hard" for the residents but urged them to remain hopeful. She also pointed to the ongoing effort by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and other elected representatives to raise money for Buena Vista's preservation. Simitian and the county Board of Supervisors have already committed to earmarking $8 million for Buena Vista's purchase. Palo Alto City Manager James Keene likewise set aside $8 million in local funds for the cause, pending the council's approval.
"I do not want you to give up hope," Kniss told the residents. "This is really a tough position for all of us. Everyone feels bad about it, there's no question. I never feel that you can give up that little glimmer that I hope is still out there. I hope you still will keep hoping."
To watch a video on Tuesday's deliberations, visit the YouTube channel.
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.