Amid backlash, city to reconsider removal of programs from Comprehensive Plan | News | Palo Alto Online |


Amid backlash, city to reconsider removal of programs from Comprehensive Plan

Citizens committee blasts City Council's decision to 'reformat' land-use document

Palo Alto officials will revisit on Monday their controversial January decision to strip all programs from the city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan -- a move that some characterized as a "formatting" change and others decried as a betrayal of public trust.

The decision to remove the more than 400 proposed programs from the updated document, which lays out the city's growth strategies between now and 2030, was proposed for the first time at the City Council's Jan. 30 meeting and abruptly approved by a 5-4 vote that reflected the council's ideological division. The five members most open to development -- Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilmen Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach -- all supported the change, while the four who favor slower city growth -- Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou -- opposed it.

The cut was proposed by Wolbach, who said it was a way to streamline and make clearer the Comprehensive Plan. Though his motion called for the programs to be removed, he later clarified that he would like to see them included in an appendix.

DuBois, on the other hand, characterized he action as the "hijacking of democracy" and a slap in the face of the Citizens Advisory Committee, a 20-member group that has spent more than a year-and-a-half updating the Comprehensive Plan (because of attrition, the group is now at 17 members).

Many members of the citizens committee agreed. Six of them co-signed a letter admonishing the council for its swift action, which they said "devalues the challenging and responsible efforts of the CAC and the input of hundreds of citizens."

"It undermines and discourages future citizen engagement in the self-governance of the city," states the letter signed by Len Filppu, Annette Glanckopf, Jennifer Hetterly, Hamilton Hitchings, Shani Kleinhaus and Mark Nadim.

Filppu said during the committee's Feb. 21 meeting the council "threw the baby out with the bathwater" and said he doesn't believe the council had expected the reaction it elicited. He urged the committee to "save the baby" by re-emphasizing all the input that the committee has been getting from the community as it crafted its policies.

Many of their colleagues shared this view. Doria Summa, a city planning commissioner, acknowledged the committee is a "recommending body" and that the council can do whatever it wants with the recommendations. Even so, she said she was surprised by the council's action, which she called a "very disappointing turn of events."

"I frankly was a little bit ashamed that they would so cavalierly throw away the work of so many people, including staff, the co-chairs and this body with no discussion, no warning," Summa said at the meeting.

Even those members not affiliated with the city's slow-growth faction criticized the council's unexpected move. Don McDougall, a council candidate last year November who aligned himself with Kniss, Fine and Tanaka, co-wrote a letter with Hetterly in which they said they were "appalled" and "deeply offended" by the action.

Their letter argued that programs are "integral and fundamental" to the desired balance in the document. Some of the policies in the Comprehensive Plan were designed with the expectation that the programs would "provide necessary detail and clarity." Without the programs, council members, staff and community members can only speculate about the policies' meanings, McDougall and Hetterly argued.

"Council's blanket approach to the Land Use and Transportation Programs belittles the effort, subverts the balance and invalidates the consensus. This is not a mere formatting change, nor can it accurately be described as 'accepting strong consensus where it existed,'" the letter from McDougall and Hetterly states. "In the name of council flexibility, council has damaged public trust and undermined the very work enabling them to earn it."

Dan Garber, a former chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission who co-chairs the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) with Arthur Keller, said at the Feb. 21 meeting that he "wasn't happy" with the program removal, which he said "threatened to undermine the hard work that we've done here at the CAC."

"I recognize the CAC is advisory and the council can take or leave our work as they wish, but Arthur and I have worked our butts off to get the CAC to work together toward a consensus where we can to provide clear alternatives where we cannot."

Alex Van Riesen, associate paster at Palo Alto Vineyard Church, agreed and called the council's action "highly suspect."

"At the best it seems it was an unwise move. At worst, it seems somewhat questionable in terms of motives and intentions," Van Riesen said. "I don't know enough and I'd love to hear more, but I'm disappointed in their decision."

A few committee members defended the council's move. Bonnie Packer, board member at Palo Alto Housing Corporation, said the council didn't throw away the programs but merely separated them from the chapter (known as an "element"). Even Packer, however, said that the motion was "poorly drafted" and noted that had the committee known this would happen, "everything would be written differently."

"They'd kind of created a mess." Packer said. "One of their priorities is to finish the Comp Plan and they've kind of just thrown in a monkey wrench because it's going to take us too long to unravel what it is they did, which they may have thought would be streamlining but looks like, maybe not."

While a sizable majority of the CAC agreed that the programs should be returned to the body of the Comprehensive Plan, planning staff are proposing a compromise. City Planning Director Hillary Gitelman suggested creating an "implementation plan" that would include all the programs, which would be organized by goals and policy numbers to maintain connections with the plan's other sections.

Gitelman also recommended eliminating redundancies and consolidating programs wherever possible. She noted only about 15 percent of the current Comprehensive Plan's roughly 260 programs have been implemented. It's unrealistic, she said, to expect that staff would reach a higher percentage with the new plan, given the high number of programs.

"My prediction or my hope is we will end up in the middle somewhere," Gitelman said at the Feb. 21 meeting of the citizens committee."In a place where people who hate what they did on (January) 30th and people who love what they did on the 30th can realize, 'Hey, there's common ground here and there's a way to get to the finish line with a plan that respects the current plan's value and structure.'"

But Keller, a former vice chair of the planning commission who is generally allied with the city's residentialists, said he didn't see Gitelman's proposal to put the programs into an implementation plan as a compromise at all. Had the committee known the programs would not be included in the Land Use Element, it would have written the policies differently, so that they would be self-contained.

"The compromise sounds to me like Solomon splitting the baby," Keller said. "In fact I don't see a compromise: Either the programs are in the Land Use Element or they're not in the Land Use Element. ... You can't be half-pregnant."

Related content:

Behind the Headlines: Uproar over city land-use plan

Editorial: A reckless majority


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2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 16, 2017 at 10:13 am

This was a good move. The previous system was stuck for many, many years. This will allow the comp plan to be less complicated and actually get done so some other planning issues can get the attention they deserve.

18 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 16, 2017 at 11:00 am

I might have missed it, but I don't see anything in this story stating that the five council members who voted for this summary motion would be willing to reconsider it. So while it would be hopeful that they back away from this path, I would not hold my breathe waiting for it. Keller is right about the proposed compromise being window dressing hiding the fundamental goal of eliminating formal elements from the Housing Plan that the council would later have to publicly repudiate in order to further their agenda.

23 people like this
Posted by 6Djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 16, 2017 at 12:56 pm

I'm glad that so many are as shocked as I am about stripping the programs out of the Comp plan in such a devious manner. Obviously the programs carry little or no weight if they are in the appendix of the plan. The five development-minded council members that voted for this can now simply ignore the programs they don't like, no matter how strongly the CAC recommends them or how much time citizens and staff have worked to develop the plans. Clearly the majority of citizens, whether they voted for the pro-developers or not, think this action is anywhere from dubious to disgracefull. I think the response of the five council members to this outcry will make it clear if they want to serve the citizens or the developers who helped fund their campaign (to a greater extent than we ever knew).

4 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 16, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Residents can referend to change any action of the City. They also have rights visavis rejecting a comp plan that doesn't retain consistency and doesn't involve the public. Throwing out the CAC wotprk makes a strong case for residents who want to counter what the CC dis. It would surely start another land use battle.

13 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2017 at 3:57 pm

"I might have missed it, but I don't see anything in this story stating that the five council members who voted for this summary motion would be willing to reconsider it."

They have to do something; they've been busted beyond any option to just arrogantly dismiss the protesters.

But their intentions almost certainly remain the same. Watch out for Plan B.

10 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 16, 2017 at 4:22 pm

I believe I referred to the Land Use element in the last paragraph, not the Housing element. The motion was to remove the programs from the Land Use element. They were already going to be in the Implementation chapter, just as they are in the current 1998 Comprehensive Plan. So either they are in the Land Use element or they are not.

14 people like this
Posted by Amazing
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 16, 2017 at 7:18 pm

Agree with the comment to "Beware Plan B". The autocratic five will surely want to present something that sounds "balanced" but in fact follows up on their attempt to cherry pick programs.

The CAC members deserve commendation - they really captured what happened

"belittles the effort, subverts the balance and invalidates the consensus. "

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