School Property Wrangling

February 27, 2008

The Cañada College housing development has provided us with more FODDER to write about. The following concerns the February 12th COWncil meeting, we’ll rustle up the information from last night’s meeting about it shortly.

As you can read in the COWncil Round-Up here or watch the video on Mootube here, the San Mateo Community College District (SMCCD) wants to build a 60-unit rental housing complex on land that is part of Cañada College, inspired by their successful 44-unit College Vista development at College of San Mateo.

The issue is contentious because the Woodhill Estates Homeowner’s Association, which tussled with the Town in the past over Barkley Field, opposed the housing project. The Association argued that the proposed 60-unit structure is too large and would ruin their view of the surrounding hills, as well as possibly allowing certain units to see into the backyards of their development. They wanted the Town to reject both measures. The notion of turning over Woodside territory to Redwood City and then not having any control over the development, seemed to strike a chord with COWncil members Hodges, Mason and Tanner.

During the February 12th COWncil meeting, Hope Sullivan characterized the lot line adjustment as a mere “formality” which Redwood City believes is not even necessary. However, Hope believes it is necessary in order to be fully compliant with state law. Though Hope kept restating that the lot line adjustment was merely a formality, COWncil members questioned how Redwood City could control the project, if it wasn’t passed. These members didn’t seem satisfied with Hope’s answers. In fact, in the video you can see them questioning her repeatedly, while her answers seemed to boil down “this is just the way it is” without a thorough explanation of the issues involved, or why things are the way they are. Admittedly, these are complex land-use issues, but Town staff owes the COWncil and the public clear, understandable explanations for the positions they advocate.

Representatives from the Woodhill Estates Homeowners Association and SMCCD presented their cases to the Town COWncil over the next hours, frequently disagreeing with each other over what should be the role of the Town of Woodside as well as the appearance, possible location for, and impact of the development. Both sides had photographs of the site and the District displayed architectural renderings of the proposed development.

The tone got pretty heated and the MOOd got a bit ugly at times, with allegations from the homeowners’ group that the District was inflexible, and counter-allegations from the District that the Association’s true motive was elitism – that they had changed their tune from one of welcoming the project to rejecting it when they discovered that the housing development wasn’t going to be reserved just for instructors, but also for District staff members “including janitors.”

The representatives of SMCCD raised the fact that the District had gotten a preliminary okay from the Town COWncil more than eight months ago, and they felt there was agreement from the COWncil, but apparently sentiment had shifted . They felt that they were now being treated unfairly by the Town. (See this article).

COWncil members who appeared to oppose the District’s proposal articulated varying reasons. Most of the concern, rather than focusing on the impact on Woodhill Estates, related to the impact on the views from Highway 280 and surrounding areas. Barbara Christensen, the District’s main representative to the meeting, expressed dismay that this was the first time she heard of these concerns even though the poles showing the height of the building had been up since November. The COWncil members opposed to the project asked staff if there was anyway that they could put restrictions or guidelines on the project as a condition of transfer.

Again we got some more fancy dancing by the Town staff. The response was that the COWncil members were free to participate in Redwood City’s planning process and state their concerns as interested members of the public, and that they would probably be listened to. This really seemed to set off the opposing Council members. It seemed as if staff had expected the COWncil to rubber stamp both of these measures and be done with it. The opposing Council members wanted to pursue guarantees that they could influence the development directly – in appearance, number of units, etc. The District bears some responsibility, having spent most of it’s time and effort with Redwood City – but of course, the Town of Woodside had previously given every impression of being supportive of the project.

SMCCD contended that the whole project would be uneconomical with fewer units, and that there is no other good place to locate the project on the campus. The Woodhill Estate’s group clearly disagreed. The COWncil eventually voted to approve the lot line change – calling it a ‘good faith effort’, but three members, Hodges, Mason and Tanner , clearly suspicious that it wasn’t a mere formality at all but the main point of leverage over Redwood City and the project remained opposed. For a Town COWncil that is generally as unanimous as a group of children asked if they want ice cream, this disagreement is notable in and of itself. The COWncil then unanimously decided to delay voting on the no-tax property tax transfer thus, at least temporarily, precluding the project from moving forward.

So here we are – the College District is unable to build until the Woodside COWncil either approves the transfer, or develops a zoning district to allow the project which could take a year or more to create. The District seems to have been blindsided – Barbara Christensen said at the conclusion of the vote that she felt that Woodside was holding the project hostage, and noted that the SMCCD had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars already on plans for the development. Mayor Romines took exception to this and said that this was how government worked.

Government this time did seem to be at least somewhat dysfunctional. We should be supportive of the College and we need to be cognizant of our Town’s affordable housing mandate. Staff should have recognized that there would be concerns about the project and made sure that issues of design were addressed with Redwood City staff before the issue came to Council. It would have been possible to receive some commitments with regard to a role in design review assuming there was a commitment not to bow NIMBYism.

This also raised questions of whether one can rely on decisions of the COWncil. Some members acknowledged that they had promised to support the development months ago, while others didn’t see any harm in changing their views. Dave Tanner, now strongly opposed to the transfer and the development, had something different to say back in May. “We wouldn’t want to stand in the way of it.” “We’ve always been good friends with Cañada College.” Somehow, we doubt that the College would agree.

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