10-22 GUP Hearing

Stanford abruptly withdraws application to expand

Just days after reportedly agreeing to meet the county’s demand for 2,172 new units of faculty and staff housing, on November 1 Stanford abruptly withdrew its application for a General Use Permit for its planned 3.5 million square foot expansion. The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to take final action on the GUP and conditions of approval on November 5. 

Although approval was widely expected, Stanford opted to abandon the application, rather than face a vote on mitigation requirements. The university cited the reluctance of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to substitute a development agreement for the County Planning Commission’s recommended conditions of approval, as well as proposed traffic mitigation requirements that Stanford deemed infeasible, as key sticking points that led the university to put its plans on hold. 

Conflict over development agreement

A development agreement would have allowed greater flexibility for negotiation of community benefits that the county cannot require under the traditional land use approval process in exchange for leniency around required mitigation of the impacts of Stanford’s growth plan. Stanford has often argued that a privately negotiated, contractual development agreement is necessary to provide certainty that the rules governing their development plans won’t change over the life of the permit. However, the previous Stanford GUP that was approved in 2000 accomplished exactly that without a DA. In its 169 year history, the county has never entered into a development agreement. 

Ironically, it was Stanford’s aggressive pursuit of a privately negotiated DA contract that undermined the prospects for such a deal. This past spring, Stanford made a bilateral agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District that would have mitigated some school impacts contingent upon county approval of both the GUP and a development agreement. Although a separate agreement between Stanford and PAUSD was appropriate and encouraged, tying it to commitments from the county proved a step too far. By making school enrollment mitigations dependent on county acquiescence to Stanford’s other demands, the move was perceived both to violate the ground rules for DA negotiations and as a cynical political weapon using kids and schools to force county concessions in other critical impact areas. The county then indefinitely paused negotiations, returning instead to the traditional development review process. 

As reported by the Palo Alto Weekly, in response to Stanford’s Friday announcement, Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian said “The authorization of 3.5 million square feet over 15 to 20 years would’ve been a substantial benefit to the university. But given the requirement for full mitigation, they chose to walk away. I respect their decision, as an applicant, to walk away.” Although he was open to the notion of a development agreement “as an appropriate tool for some narrow and limited benefits” he was not willing to abdicate the county’s police powers and land-use authority.

What impacts and mitigations were at issue?

Community members and public officials from across the region have turned out in droves throughout the public review process seeking mitigation of impacts from Stanford’s expansion plan on housing, traffic and transit, municipal services, schools, parks and open space, air quality and more. Most recently, a public hearing in Palo Alto on October 22 brought an overflow crowd of more than 400 people and was preceded by two rallies calling for full mitigation – one organized by the Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 (SCoPE2035) to insist that Stanford offer more housing and transportation services for employees, and another organized by the Palo Alto Council of Parent Teacher Associations urging Stanford to stand by the spring draft agreement with PAUSD, with or without a development agreement. 

A coalition of elected representatives and staff members from San Mateo County, Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood City and Woodside also weighed in prior to the hearing calling on Stanford to “pay its fair share” to address the impacts of proposed campus growth, citing the revenue loss already suffered by San Mateo County public agencies due to Stanford’s current $1.2 billion in tax exempt property holdings in the county.

The traditional review process produced a recommendation by the county’s staff and Planning Commission to approve the GUP, but subject to certain conditions designed to achieve full mitigation of negative impacts on housing, traffic and other environmental concerns, including such things as:

  • the addition of 2,172 new housing units for faculty and staff and a housing linkage provision that would require housing construction to move forward concurrent with academic development – that is, Stanford could not build subsequent phases of academic growth until the housing required in the previous phase was complete;
  • a new methodology for counting car trips that considers the entire “peak” commute period rather than a single hour; and
  • long term protection of the foothills from development.  

Under state law, the county cannot require mitigations for school enrollment impacts. However, in order to approve the GUP, the Board of Supervisors would have had to make a legal finding that it would not be “detrimental to public health, safety, and general welfare.” County analysis indicated that PAUSD currently loses $44.5 million in annual revenue due to Stanford’s tax exempt status. The GUP was expected to produce 1,086 new PAUSD students from new tax exempt Stanford properties. Averaging the cost of that enrollment growth across PAUSD’s total enrollment, by 2041 it would result in a $5,050 reduction in funding, for every PAUSD student, every year. County Board President, Supervisor Joe Simitian, indicated on October 22 that absent Stanford contributions to the school district, it could be difficult for the board to make the legal findings necessary to approve the GUP.  

Because of Stanford’s tax exempt status, absent supplemental Stanford contributions to the school district, by 2041 PAUSD would see a $5,050 reduction in funding for every PAUSD student, every year. 

Announcement and reactions

Stanford indicated in its announcement that it will launch “a new phase of engagement with our local communities” and consider the implications of regional challenges for Stanford’s longer-term campus development. The announcement also refers to a poll (commissioned by Stanford) showing that after receiving what the university described as “a neutral description of the [GUP application],” 72 percent of respondents supported Stanford’s expansion plan. 

In a separate letter to the Stanford community, the university again touted the necessity of a development agreement and blamed the Board of Supervisors’ two-member ad hoc negotiating committee for preventing the university from “responding to the many requests for benefits from our neighboring communities.” Stanford also reiterated that mitigating the car trips associated with greater housing requirements would be infeasible and unrealistic and objected to a county proposed study that would have monitored Stanford’s impacts on municipal services. Stanford’s letter says they “will be actively assessing available options for our highest-priority needs” and “will inform and involve the campus community and our neighbors as we determine the next steps.” 

Stanford undergraduate and graduate students behind the influential SCoPE2035 aren’t buying it. In a scathing Facebook post responding to Stanford’s announcement, the group says Stanford’s “reasons for withdrawing the permit are excuses disguising their true motive.” SCoPE2035 argues that the proposed conditions of approval would have provided “just as much certainty as a development agreement” and that “Stanford’s claims of being unable to meet traffic requirements while building new housing are false. The County loosened requirements to make them easier to meet and gave Stanford multiple options and flexibility to meet standards, including unlimited trip credits.” 

The group accused Stanford of treating community pleas for equitable outcomes as mere public relations challenges and posited that the university’s latest move is a “stalling tactic” designed not for further “engagement” with the community but to wait for student activists to graduate, county supervisors to be replaced, and the community to forget.

Members of the San Mateo County coalition expressed both relief and disappointment. It felt like a win that county residents would not soon have to face the problems predicted from Stanford’s expansion plan. But some were disappointed that Stanford opted to withdraw its application rather than confront the cumulative impacts of its long-term growth in partnership with affected communities.

What happens next?

With the application withdrawn, county deliberations on Stanford’s plan come to a full stop. Whether Stanford will submit a new, possibly revised, application for a long-term development permit, pursue piecemeal permits to implement its plans on a project by project basis, or simply pause its development ambitions until the politics are more favorable, remains to be seen. In any case, Stanford still has development entitlements remaining in its allocation from the GUP approved by the county in 2000.

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