Stanford University and Santa Clara County staff are locked in an unusual conflict over how the university's application should be handled by the county Board of Supervisors, a disagreement that few in the public understand or consider important.
As the supervisors proceed toward public hearings in the weeks ahead and a decision on Stanford's general-use permit application, Stanford is not helping itself or serving the community's interests by demanding a different process that consists of confidential negotiations behind closed doors.
The university's preferred process amounts to freewheel bargaining between the applicant and the government agency, where deals are struck to trade off some requirements in exchange for obtaining other benefits that the public may want but has no legal authority to require. In the end of the process, the applicant and staff release the resulting "development agreement" that spells out the commitments of the applicant. The agency, in this case the county Board of Supervisors, then holds public hearings and votes on the agreement. This is not the normal way government agencies consider development proposals, and Santa Clara County has never used it.
County staff are instead following the traditional legal process, which involves the staff recommending conditions of approval, including measures necessary to mitigate the impacts of the development, followed by public input and final action. That approval process is well underway. The county Planning Commission has already held hearings and approved the staff-recommended conditions of approval.
Stanford has strong objections to some of the conditions, including requirements that it provide more housing than the university originally proposed and meet stringent new traffic requirements based on a more aggressive monitoring system. It says these conditions, when taken together, are infeasible.
But instead of either reducing the 3.5 million square feet in its development proposal or focus on persuading the county and public to agree to specific changes to the proposed conditions, Stanford has decided to threaten the withdrawal of its application unless negotiations get shifted to a closed-door development agreement process.
The Board of Supervisors and the public should strongly resist this attempt. The county staff has prepared, in good faith, conditions of approval that seek to give Stanford all the development approvals it seeks for the next 25 years while protecting the surrounding communities from the impacts created by that development.
Stanford University already enjoys tremendous exclusive benefits from the county, including the opportunity to avoid going through a separate permit process as it constructs each building. Once approved, for the next 25 years Stanford will be free to proceed with its plans with minimal involvement of the county other than to ensure compliance with the conditions of approval.
Stanford has not made the case that a change in the process is needed or desirable. Its statement that "under a development agreement, Stanford is able to provide significant community benefits, and even front-load those benefits, because of assurances from the county that the university can build its academic buildings under predictable land use rules and regulations" is vague, unpersuasive and fails to explain why the same cannot be accomplished through the current open public process.
With under 200,000 square feet left to develop from its current permit, Stanford can hardly afford to walk away from its new application. Let's hear the arguments and the university's alternative proposals for mitigating the impacts of its growth. But thinking its best strategy is to threaten the withdrawal of its application in order to get all or part of its application diverted to a development agreement is a recipe for confusion, further delay and unpredictable and unaccountable horse-trading. The normal process worked fine for Stanford when its current use permit was approved in 2000.
In the meantime, a piece of good news this week: Stanford has informed the Palo Alto Unified School District that when it builds new housing on campus as a result of being granted a new general-use permit, it will honor the commitment it made earlier in the year to pay the district about $6,000 a year for every additional student who enrolls in the school district who lives in new tax-exempt housing, as well as other benefits that could total as much as $138 million over 40 years.
The public is not served by any process that pushes the negotiation of critical issues behind closed doors. Much as Stanford might prefer otherwise, the county has oversight of development on the campus and is right to insist on following a normal, open process in which the public can fully observe and participate.