When Stanford University proposed in 2016 to expand its campus, city and county officials that had rarely spoken to one another in the past suddenly rallied together over common concerns about the housing, traffic and school impacts of the planned developments.
Even though Stanford ended its expansion bid in November, when it withdrew the project, officials from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are hoping to continue their newly formed partnership. They, along with city leaders from Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City and East Palo Alto, are preparing to adopt a Land Use Compact under which they would meet twice a year to discuss significant developments with impacts that spill over the boundaries separating them.
The new compact was proposed last November by Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who called the county's collaboration with its San Mateo County counterparts "one of the most important outcomes around the Stanford GUP (general use permit)."
"What became clear is that we have an opportunity to work with our sister organizations on either side of the county line, because so many big developments happen right along that alignment," Chavez said at the Nov. 5 meeting. "We don't want our needs to be traded off each other, but rather have a more comprehensive way to be at least having discussions."
On Thursday, the Santa Clara County's Housing, Land Use, Environment and Transportation Committee received its first report since that November meeting about what the agreement would look like. Under the proposal presented by Deputy County Executive Sylvia Gallegos, the forum involving the participating jurisdictions would meet twice per year as well as any time any of the partners receive a significant nonresidential development application.
Participants would convene regular meetings to discuss the application until they agree by consensus that such meetings are no longer needed. Discussions would focus on the development's impacts on transportation and housing, possible mitigations and ways to fund these mitigations.
While other jurisdictions have embraced the idea of regional cooperation, the effort faces some challenges. Gallegos said the county is still trying to determine what thresholds the compact members should adopt for developments that would trigger a meeting with regional partners. This could include factors such as square footage, the number of new employees in the new project or housing demand that the project would generate.
So far, there's been little consensus or meaningful input. Gallegos said the county proposed 500,000 square feet of new development as a threshold of "significance" for the purpose of the conversation. For some, that number was too high.
"For example, the city of Palo Alto says that potentially in their jurisdictions, a 50,000-square-foot development would certainly be a very significant development in its community, notwithstanding the fact that by our standards, we would consider that a relatively small project," Gallegos said.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who chairs the committee, suggested that the threshold shouldn't be too small either.
"Unless a certain supervisor wanted to go sit in on those meetings, I wouldn't be supporting sending a couple of supervisors for a 20,000-square-foot project in Atherton," Wasserman said.
Another challenge, Gallegos said, is that regional planning, while great in theory, can be tricky in practice because local jurisdictions don't like to give up their own decision-making powers. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian agreed.
"What I heard over the years in working with colleagues in the local government is that everyone thinks we should plan regionally and no one wants to give in local control and political sovereignty," Simitian said during Thursday's discussion.
Gallegos also noted in a report that there was an expression of "caution or discouragement about the likely willingness of elected officials to engage their counterpart elected officials in negotiation of possible community benefits associated with a specific development project."
In some cases, she wrote, the primary aspiration is to improve cohesion among a jurisdiction's elected body. There was an acknowledgement, she wrote, that "interagency collaboration as a goal would follow these efforts."
Both Simitian and Wasserman supported the proposed forum, which is being set up as a way to share information rather than diffuse local power. Galllegos noted that the forum would have a purely advisory role.
Simitian recalled the first time he convened representatives from the six jurisdictions that include Stanford land — Santa Clara County, San Mateo County, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Woodside, Portola Valley — to discuss the potential impacts of the university's proposed General Use Permit. Everyone realized that it was the first time in everyone's recollection that all six jurisdictions convened for such a conversation.
"It was sort of an 'Aha!' moment," Simitian said.
Later in the process, county officials recognized that there are other local players who should be in the mix, including Redwood City and East Palo Alto, Simitian said. They also recognized that Stanford isn't the only large player in the region. Facebook and Google operate out of large campuses in Menlo Park and Mountain View, respectively, while Palo Alto has Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford Research Park, both of which are close to the county's northern border. Any major redevelopments involving these, or other, projects are bound to have ripple effects in neighboring jurisdictions.
Gallegos said the notion of the compact is to "build upon existing relationships and establish new relationships, because there's changeover in administrative staff and elected officials."
The idea of forming the compact has broad support on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, which voted unanimously last November to move the process forward. San Mateo County officials are also interested. Steve Monowitz, San Mateo County's community development director, thanked Chavez at the November board meeting for bringing the idea forward.
"Although Stanford has withdrawn its GUP application, our work toward ensuring that impacts of university growth are fully mitigated is not done. And the collaboration compact can provide an excellent forum for us to do this and to address other projects of regional impacts because … We are much stronger standing together on these issues than going it alone."
Simitian acknowledged Thursday that there are limitations to what folks are willing to commit to in advance.
"But the one thing they are willing to commit to in advance is to sit down and talk and share information and listen to one another and hope that this then leads to some kind of commitment that is substantive, if and when the time comes."