Stanford University and the county of Santa Clara took fundamentally opposing viewpoints on a few key development issues, eventually leading to the university's withdrawal on Nov. 1 of its general-use permit application.
1. Was a development agreement necessary?
Stanford University has claimed throughout the review process of its general use permit that a development agreement -- a negotiated document spelling out how much growth Santa Clara County would allow and how much Stanford would contribute to cover the growth's impacts -- would be critical for the university to proceed with its expansion plan.
Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president for government and community relations, said the county's "flat-out, continued refusal to engage with us on a development agreement" was the main factor in Stanford's decision not to move ahead.
The two sides were not always so polarized as they ended up over a development agreement. In October 2018, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to negotiate such an agreement that potentially could be considered as part of the approval process -- or not.
Joe Simitian, president of the county Board of Supervisors, said at the time that the agreement would ultimately be considered alongside other mechanisms, which would include ordinances, legislative actions and quasi-judicial actions.
"The full array should be before us so that we can understand which tool is the most appropriate tool for which particular challenge in the exercise," Simitian said.
But while Stanford sought to get started immediately on negotiations, Simitian underscored that the board would not be making any decisions on a development agreement until after the environmental review of the project was completed in December. By April, however, the negotiations still hadn't begun; Simitian said it was owing to the fact that county staff had not yet finalized conditions of approval, which would be key to negotiations.
Even before talks collapsed in April, the two sides had starkly different ideas about what a development agreement would look like. Stanford repeatedly referred to a "comprehensive development agreement" governing the entire project. McCown said Stanford was being asked to deliver far more community benefits as part of the current proposal than was the case with its existing general use permit, approved in 2000. To provide these benefits, Stanford needs "protection and predictability" for its new development over the long-term horizon, she said.
The county, however, was planning to use its regulatory powers to require many mitigations, such as housing and traffic regulations, and saw a development agreement as a tool that could be used for benefits that go beyond the scope of these powers.
"I was open to the notion that a development agreement was an appropriate tool for some narrow and limited set of benefits," Simitian told the Weekly after the university withdrew its application.
2. Did Stanford University violate its ground rules for negotiations with the county?
When county staff and Supervisors Simitian and Cindy Chavez announced on April 16 that they were indefinitely suspending their negotiations with Stanford on a possible development agreement, they pointed to Stanford's side deal with the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) as the reason.
The ground rules that Stanford and the county agreed on in January 2019 for their negotiations over a development agreement specifically prohibited the two parties from reaching a deal with another "interested party" and presenting that deal as a proposal during the negotiations period.
Stanford leaders rejected the notion that they broke the rules and pointed to Simitian's own comments at a March 14 community meeting, where he urged Stanford to collaborate with the school district on a package of benefits.
"Supervisor Simitian and the county had actively encouraged us to engage with PAUSD as part of these negotiations, and we believe this discussion is not in violation of the ground rules," McCown said in an email.
After halting negotiations, county officials informed Stanford that they would consider re-opening them if two conditions were met: the talks, unlike before, would occur in open and public meetings and Stanford would offer benefits to the Palo Alto Unified School District equal to or greater than those contained in the April 15 agreement (but without being contingent on a development agreement).
According to a report from Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos and Planning Director Jacqueline Onciano, Stanford leaders did not agree to these conditions. Gallegos and Onciano reiterated in a Nov. 5 report that Stanford had violated the ground rules "because it reached a deal with PAUSD that was connected to and contingent upon the execution of a development agreement between the county and Stanford."
3. Does the community support Stanford's expansion?
Both Stanford and Santa Clara County officials claim to have support for their respective positions from the broader community. On Nov. 1, Stanford released a survey by Benenson Strategy Group indicating that most voters in Santa Clara County support what the university is doing.
The results, however, also show that most people haven't really been paying attention. Only 38% reported having heard anything about the university's plans to expand.
The survey also indicated that 75% of the respondents supported a "development agreement" with Santa Clara County that would "require Stanford to commit to providing specific benefits to the community, including housing, school funding and transportation improvements, over the next 20 years." The question did not, however, inform the respondent that Stanford's proposed housing and traffic benefits were less than what the county would have required without such an agreement.
The survey also noted that 84% of voters agreed with the statement, "By investing $4.7 billion in workforce housing, local schools and transportation, Stanford University is doing its part to support our community." That statement, however, belies the fact that a significant share of the $4.7 billion (more than $1 billion) would go toward constructing student beds and much of the rest would pay for fixing the problems caused by Stanford's very project.
From the county's standpoint, public pressure placed on Stanford to fully mitigate the expansion's anticipated impacts on housing, traffic and more shored up the county's stance.
The procession of mayors requesting that the county require full mitigation made it politically easy for the Board of Supervisors to stay the course with their housing and traffic requirements, Stanford's protests notwithstanding.
And the requests that various student groups presented to the county (including calls for additional child care services, subsidies for graduate students and transportation services for Stanford staff) aligned neatly with new conditions of approval that Simitian and Chavez released after the Oct. 22 board meeting.
Simitian told the Weekly that what the public wanted dovetailed with his preference for full mitigation.
"When dealing with challenging land use matters, I have to ask: What does the law require? What are my constituents hoping for? And what's my own best judgment -- what values do I bring to the consideration? In this case, all three were aligned," he said.