Nearly 100 local residents packed into Monday to speak their minds about the controversial Blithedale Terrace project, a 20-unit residential complex at the base of Kite Hill.
They did just that, but not before a nearly 90-minute discussion about whether the Planning Commission would deal with the task at hand: deciding whether to (EIR) on the project. The marathon debate left many in the audience scratching their heads, mumbling in confusion and even walking out the door before they had a chance to speak.
“I just wish things could have been a bit more organized,” said Peggy Chipkin, a resident of Altamont Avenue near the proposed project site at East Blithedale Ave. near Camino Alto.
The commission ended up calling for a study session (date TBD) to pour over possible alternatives to the project Tiburon developer Phil Richardson wants to build. The project calls for 20 homes between 1,100 and 2,000 square feet arranged along three parallel rows up the hillside. Of the 20 units, two would be reserved for lower-income households and two for moderate-income households. Richardson said he expects the development to house around 45 people.
Commission Chair David Rand kicked off the meeting with a proposal to direct Oakland-based consulting firm Lamphier Gregory, which , to further explore alternatives. He said the lack of alternatives, such as a residential project with fewer units and one that didn’t requyire an oak tree on the property to be removed, was a glaring omission by Lamphier Gregory.
“I don’t think it’s going to be productive tonight for us to debate the adequacy of an EIR that addresses a 20-unit project and a no project alternative,” he said. “The question of the alternatives is the biggest card on the table for all of us.”
Rand’s proposal languished for more than an hour as commissioners, city staff and Richardson’s attorney Riley Hurd discussed how such a scenario would work and how it impacted the commission’s goal of making a recommendation to the council in a timely manner.
“I’m quite frustrated,” Richardson said. “You had your consultant do the EIR. Now all of sudden (the EIR) is inadequate and I’m to pay for its inadequacy. Does that seem fair?”
Rand said that despite the delay, he was attempting to save Richardson time and money in the long run by looking at alternatives now and seeking independent analysis of why a smaller project wouldn't be economically viable for Richardson.
“If we move into an up or down vote on certifying this EIR, there is going to be a recommendation that won’t sit well with the applicant,” he said.
After more discussion about how to proceed, Rand drew sarcastic laughs from the crowd when he said, “I really don’t want this to drag on.”
Despite the tangent and delay, dozens of residents lined up to have their say when the time came. Several suggested that the city buy the property and preserve it as open space, while a few parents said the project would make an already unsafe intersection even worse.
Former Planning Commissioner Burton Miller said the decision to include the Blithedale Terrace property in its 2003 Housing Element update as a place for a 20-unit residential development was simply done “for political reasons” to meet from the (ABAG).
“We are starting from a benchmark that is contrived, can’t be supported by good planning and has no basis for analysis,” he said. “We have spent 8 years trying to find a path to justify how to bring that number down. It’s ludicrous that we’re even talking about it. The applicant has no right to 20 units.”
Hurd raised a possible legal challenge to a project of reduced scale, saying that the inclusion of the property for development of up to 20 units in the city’s Housing Element “was far more than a mental exercise.” He cited the Housing Accountability Act’s requirement that the city follow through with its housing element designations unless it has met its ABAG allocation quotas elsewhere.
“The city has kind of painted itself into a corner,” he said.
“Is it your contention that the city is legally obligated to put 20 units there?” Rand asked.
“Yes,” Hurd replied.
Rand then suggested that the city would have its attorney explore the relevance of the law Hurd cited.
More than anything, Hurd said the city was putting the cart before the horse by exploring such a detailed level of alternatives to a project that was still in the environmental review stage.
“We’re very aware that this might not be the most popular project – it’s quite a turnout this evening,” Hurd said.