Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Council votes to deny Seeno project; City Manager tries to keep it alive...

At the October 7 City Council meeting, the Council voted to deny the Seeno project (527-acre Business Park in north Benicia). After hearing the results of a traffic study, and much deliberation, three of the five Council members remained unsatisfied with the sufficiency of the proposed mitigation measures which attempted to address the project's harmful impact on air quality and public health caused by excessive traffic.

Around 1 AM, Council took a vote on a Resolution to Approve the EIR Addendum (which was necessary in order to approve the project). It failed, 3 No votes (Patterson, Campbell, Ioakimedes), 2 yes votes (Hughes, Schwartzman). Therefore, the project could not be approved. City Attorney was instructed to bring forth a Resolution to Deny the project at the next Council meeting.

At the Oct. 21 Council meeting, City Manager Erickson submitted a report recommending that the Council “continue” the Seeno Item until the Nov. 18 City Council meeting because one of the five Council members (Campbell) was absent. He also produced several resolutions for their consideration. In addition to producing a resolution to deny the project and the EIR Addendum (as staff had been instructed to do), he also presented a resolution to approve the project (!) and he made a recommendation that the Council enter into “facilitated” discussions with the Developer to consider additional project requirements that might enable project approval.

Lacking a fifth vote, the Council did not act on the various resolution, and instead voted to "Continue the Item" to the Nov. 18 Council meeting.

With that as background, Roger Straw submitted the following column to the Benicia Herald:

Rebuilding Eroded Trust
By Roger Straw
Benicia Herald, Guest column, October 29, 2008

In recent statements before and during the October 21 City Council meeting, I believe that our City’s professional staff exercised their authority in a questionable manner.

Prior to the meeting, City Manager Jim Erickson, Community Development Director Charlie Knox and City Attorney Heather McLaughlin submitted a Staff Report that many feel ignored the will of the Council. Many feel that in bypassing the will of our elected representatives, staff has thwarted the will of the citizens of Benicia, who elected the Council.

The record will show that on October 7, Council voted 3-2 in a very clear and difficult decision, to not go forward in considering the Benicia Business Park as proposed by Seeno and Discovery Builders.

After the motion and before the vote on October 7, Councilmember Ioakimedes said, “I have a question for the City Attorney: the motion that's on the floor right now is the resolution that is on [page] B45. There will be another motion for B47?”

McLaughlin replied, “No. There'll be another motion if you approve B45, to approve the resolution that's on page 183.” She went on, “The part that's on 47, and the part that's exhibit B, which is on page 110, will be included as part of the resolutions, so you don't need a separate action on those.”

Ioakimedes then said, “But if there's a vote to deny, then there isn't any subsequent vote, is there?”

McLaughlin: “Right.” Ioakimedes: “Ok. That's ... Thank you.”

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson then called upon Councilmember Alan Schwartzman.

Schwartzman, addressing McLaughlin, said, “…Ok, so if the one we've got on the table now passes, we can go back to the table, and think about other conditions. If the one that we have on the table now fails, we don't go any further, we're done. Is that the way I understand it?”

McLaughlin: “Well, then I would suggest that we do a Resolution of Denial. You all could direct me to go back, using the model from June 3rd, with the findings or whatever you came up with.”

I find this record explicit, and without loopholes. The vote to approve CEQA documentation failed, 3-2, under deadline to pass, and the city attorney was directed by the mayor at the end of the meeting -- and agreed -- to return to the next meeting with a formal “Resolution to Deny” to conclude the rejection of the Seeno project.

Contrary to staff’s suggestion on October 21 that a “no” vote on a motion to approve leaves wiggle room for more consideration, the reason for a formal Resolution to Deny is not to state positively an affirmation which was not yet voted. The resolution is a formal statement with legal findings to solidify -- for the record and for legal reasons -- that a no vote has been taken.

Benicia needs to sit up and take notice of all this. Not only because of the stakes in approving or denying the current Seeno project, but for reasons of good and trustworthy government.

It is my understanding that staff brought forward its controversial recommendation on October 21 based not only on its rather manufactured reading of Council’s action on October 7, but that certain comments were conveyed in writing by Ioakimedes after the vote that could have been interpreted – or misinterpreted – as a wish to keep the current proposal open for discussion.

At issue here is not whether City staff should be fired, but how to regain trust after a major blunder. The human heart does not regain trust easily, and the public, having come to a high degree of respect for all five Council members despite their differences, now faces a huge hurdle in understanding the motives and honor of those who serve the Council, and by extension, the public.

Over the course of the next month, we are told that all stakeholders will be invited to sit down in professionally facilitated meetings to discuss the project, in hopes of agreement and approval at Council’s November 18 meeting. One of the outcomes of those meetings is likely to be a regained sense of trust among us all, or a further erosion of trust.

Roger Straw is a member of Benicia’s Green Gateway Group. For more information on the group, visit

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Seeno project: Benicia's message is 'competence'

Vallejo Times-Herald
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Seeno project: Benicia's message is 'competence'
by Dan Healy, Member, Benicia Planning Commission

The Times-Herald editorial of Oct. 9 ("Benicia: What message was city trying to send Seeno?") was wrong at every level. Contrary to your bizarre assertions, the Discovery Builders project was rejected for the simple reason that the developer refused to negotiate a written development agreement with the City.

As a member of the Benicia Planning Commission, I had the opportunity to vote on the project over six months ago. Our entire Planning Commission was supportive of the project, although we were frustrated by the applicant's unwillingness to sit down and negotiate a comprehensive development agreement with the City. Such an agreement, which defines with specificity the rights and responsibilities of both the City and developer, is very common for such large projects. The project developer declined to enter into such an agreement and instead demanded that the project hearings move forward. Frustrated that the developer refused to enter into a written development agreement, the Planning Commission unanimously rejected the developer's application and then immediately asked the developer to negotiate a development agreement. (Every member of the commission was appointed by former "business friendly" Mayor Steve Messina.)

That situation did not fundamentally change thereafter, as Discovery Builders continued to refuse, despite repeated requests, to enter into a written development agreement.

The Times-Herald applauds Discovery Builders for allegedly "agreeing to every one" of the City's requests. This statement is simply false. There were significant concerns raised by the Benicia Unified School District and other key constituencies that were not adequately addressed by the developer. More importantly, however, is the simple fact that the developer, while making various promises at midnight on the evening of hearings, refused to reduce its promises to an enforceable written agreement.

The Times-Herald's attack on Benicia's efforts to reduce air pollution is also absurd, given that, since the passage of AB 32, California law in fact REQUIRES that cities reduce air pollution.

It would be irresponsible for the City to approve one of the largest development in Benicia history without a negotiated, well-vetted development agreement that guarantees that the rights of both the City and the developer are clearly defined and that the project complies with California law.

As an example, last month the City and Valero refinery entered into a huge agreement for the improvement of the refinery. In that case, both Valero and Benicia residents came together to negotiate in good faith, and the result was a written agreement with served the interests of both Valero and the City.

It is not "anti-business" to ask that development agreements be reduced to writing. It is responsible governance. Nor is it "perfection" that the City seeks, although the City certainly tries to get as close as it can (the Times-Herald's advocacy of mediocrity notwithstanding).

It is not "arrogant" to seek a better project, or to demand enforceable agreements for such a project. This is called "competence".

Friday, October 10, 2008


by Rick Ernst, Member, Benicia Planning Commission

I wish to extend sincere accolades to Benicia Herald Staff Reporter, Mr. Yevgeniy Sverdlik, for the excellent work he has done since coming to our fair city. I do not wish for this letter to be construed as criticism of his article found on the front page of Thursday's issue, entitled, "Denied: Council votes, 3-2, against business park plan", under which, Mr. Sverdlik states, "In epic meeting, mayor, two members send developer packing".

First, despite the fact there were a number of personal attacks of Mr. Seeno and his family, there are many in the community that were glad the Seeno family was in town and would like to see his property developed. Many felt that the project as proposed was satisfactory. Many did not believe the project was satisfactory, and, of course, Council ultimately denied the application. However, I don't think anybody in town felt as if they sent the developer "packing". On the contrary, I believe many people in town would like to see the applicant return to Benicia in the very near future to sit down and discuss a project that is win-win-win for everybody, including the residents, our children, the school district, and the Seeno family -- as the Mayor indicated, we all want an A-plus project.

The definition of an A-plus project is, however, up for discussion, which brings me to my point. I believe that nearly everybody in town would look forward to sitting down and working out a project that everybody agrees is win-win-win as stated above. A project that everybody agrees is A-plus. A project that allows the owner/developer to develop the land and provide much-needed revenues to the city; that provides much needed police and fire services; that allows upgrades of much needed infrastructure; that, indeed, protects the health and safety of all residents, children and students; that is environmentally friendly; that, perhaps, has a positive energy outflow and a low carbon footprint; that provides construction jobs at the outset and jobs that fit our demographics down the road, and allows the owner/developer to earn a profit for all their time and effort.

We have experienced up and downs during this debate that has lasted nearly four years on the current project, not to mention previous applications. We have all endured far too much haggling. Not to place blame on anybody in particular -- it is a difficult process to dance around when it comes to CEQA, change in city staff, and a huge project that has many consequences, positive and negative, with the possibly that some consequences may be unforeseen and unintentional. We need to identify, review, and mitigate those consequences.

I understand that Seeno purchased the land with the intent to build homes which is their forte. But, things changed. Zoning changed. Councils changed. Climate changed. And, we have gained tremendous understanding of these kinds of developments over the past 25 years. It's been a difficult path for all parties concerned, especially this owner/developer who has invested considerablbe time and money putting together what they felt was a Class A Project.

So, where do we go from here? I suggest that we do not send Seeno "packing". I don't want Discovery Homes to go away. Rather, I would like to invite Mr. Seeno and his associates, Mr. Evola, representatives from Labor, the "Activists", and all interested parties to gather together and discuss and agree upon an A-plus project.

The fact is, we have a fairly solid foundation with all the work that has gone into this process to date. Everybody is aware of what everybody else wants, so we have an excellent starting point. We've passed the "On your mark" stage. We can move right into, "Get set", and, then, hopefully, in the very near future, we can proceed to "GO!", and we can get a project off and running of which everybody can be proud!

I'm confident with all the brainpower we have in this City, with the expertise of Seeno, with the dedication of our City Council, and professionalism of our Staff, it can be done! I'm looking forward to everybody's input, cooperation, and agreement so that we can break ground next year, as was suggested at the Council Meeting.

On your mark, get set, Go!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Final Vote on Seeno Project, Oct. 7, City Hall

Please come to City Hall on Oct. 7 for the public hearing on the traffic study and the final vote on the Seeno/Benicia Business Park project.

[To refresh you memory about the reason for the traffic study please view some of the previous posts on this blog, particularly this one on June 4. This timeline of the project approval process is also quite revealing. ]

The Benicia Business Park public hearing is at the end of the City Council agenda, and is not likely to begin until around 8:00 pm. It may last until quite late, and many people will not be able to stay, but a good citizen turnout at the beginning would be very helpful.

In a nutshell, in order for the Council to approve the proposed project on Oct. 7, they must agree to sign a "Statement of Overriding Considerations." That statement admits that the proposed project will generate traffic emissions which will cause significant air pollution impacts that exceed State thresholds for ozone precursors.

(Ozone is a serious public health hazard, and Benicia already has higher levels of ozone than most Bay Area communities. The toxic effects of the localized traffic emissions will be particularly severe for the school children and residents around Robert Semple school near E. 2nd Street and I-780. But the increased ozone level and its increased ozone-related health hazards will be experienced by everyone city-wide. )

The Statement of Overriding Considerations goes on to make the very dubious claim that there are no other mitigation measures that can be employed to reduce the traffic impact to a less than significant level. Finally, it makes the unproven claim that the economic benefit to the city's tax base is so great that it creates an "overriding consideration," thus allowing them to approve the project and override the clean air requirements of CEQA law and accept the ozone air pollution burdens and adverse public health effects that will accrue from the project.

If you don't feel that is an acceptable trade off, now is the time to let the City Council know! (Click here to send them emails)

And by the way, project denial would not be the end of the project. Instead, it would finally open the door and allow a fresh start for the developer to work with the City and the community on a new vision for the project, clearly outlined in a detailed Specific Plan. Many details of the community’s vision have already been thoroughly described throughout the approval process by many individuals and groups (most recently in a detailed document posted by the Green Gateway Group at ), so the developer would not have to start over with no ideas and a blank slate.

If you have time, in preparation for the Council meeting you will find it useful to read the Staff Report and the Public Comments pertaining to the Seeno hearing on Oct. 7. To read them click on this link to the Oct.7 City Council agenda and scroll down to item VIII. Public Hearings, B. Benicia Business Park. Then click the links to Staff Report and Public Comments. (They are both very large files and may take several minutes to download.)