Vespremi: Finding a better balance between the public interest and the rights of developers

A week ago David Vespremi, a member of the Midcoast Community Council and a resident of Moss Beach, wrote a letter to Jim Eggemeyer, the new head of the County’s Panning Department. Since Eggemeyer took over the department early this year the balance between the public interest and the rights of developers seems to have taken a decided tilt in favor of the developers. Although written in response to the Big Wave proposal, David’s letter takes a broad view and outlines “seven deadly sins” that he sees in the behavior of the Planning Department and suggests remedies to restore the balance between community and individual needs.

With his permision, I would would like to share David’s letter with you as if offers a thoughtful critique of the systemic problems we face with regard to planning on the coast and with regard to the government body that helps to regulate development.

October 26, 2010

Jim Eggemeyer
Planning Director
San Mateo County Planning Department
400 County Center
Redwood City, CA 94063

With all of the negative comments made in connection with the Big Wave project proposal, I can see why both county planning officials and members of the public could feel overwhelmed and at their respective wits end.

For the public, it is difficult to know where to start with a 3,000+ page FEIR and a long list of existing complaints, concerns, and potential red flags with just 12 days to review the finished document to check and see whether these were adequately addressed. The planners and applicant appear to be equally overwhelmed responding to the numerous letters, emails, charts and graphs submitted both in response to the DEIR and FEIR. I too am opposed to the Big Wave Project and like many members of my community that took the time to submit comments during the DEIR stage, believe that most, if not all, of the areas of concern we expressed in our DEIR comments are also applicable to the FEIR – especially in light of the mutually exclusive alternative development scenarios set forth therein. For this reason, until I have more time to read and digest the FEIR, I hereby incorporate by reference my previously submitted DEIR comment letter.

There is good news, however. Moving forward, things can go more smoothly for future development proposals and maybe, just maybe even Big Wave can be salvaged. But there are important lessons to be learned from this failed process and some big changes needed for that to happen.

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Big Wave EIR Process and How To Avoid Them

1. Both the County and the Developer Need to Be Open and Transparent

Trust in the process and err on the side over over-sharing information with the public as opposed to going dark and remaining silent on potential key areas of concern. This is basic human psychology 101. The more people trust in the process and feel like they are being treated as intelligent members of the community, and the more opportunities they have to engage in a meaningful dialog at the feasibility analysis stage of a contemplated new development – before a project proposal ever becomes an EIR – the better the likelihood that the project proposal will find broad community acceptance.

Here, there were countless examples of missed opportunities. From a lack of coastal workshops, to a lack of meaningful engagement with the elected Midcoast Community Council, to a lack of story poles, to a lack of opening the books on the projects financial structure, there was a sense of a shell game being played throughout. The impression that this project proposal made was one of being sneaky rather than honest, underhanded rather than above board, pushed on the community rather than pulled towards it.

The solution is obvious. Embrace openness with the community and engage with residents and the MCC as early and as often as possible.

2. Make Everyone Play By The Same Rules

Related to point number 1 above, the majority of us have had the experience of either building a home, or doing a remodel or renovation on the coast. We have experienced the frustrations of asking for, and being denied, special treatment from the building and planning department and/or the department of public works. If variances and special use permits are as rare as hen’s teeth for the average resident, it should be no different for developers, and this includes simple requirements like the courtesy of notifying neighbors and erecting story poles.

When the community sees developers receiving special treatment, especially when that special treatment appears to be occurring behind closed doors and out of the realm of public meetings (see point number one above) the chasm between community support and the interests of the county and the developer with which it is aligned widens.

Big Wave may be a wonderful, viable project but the only way we would ever know is if the county said, in essence, “Our vision for the Princeton Harbor over the next 20-30 years is as follows. [Outline of how the harbor might change in that time]. A key part of planning for that future is a incorporating the facilities presented by a development like Big Wave. In order to make that future a reality, we are going to need to revisit the Master Plan for the area, the applicable zoning, the airport overlay, and even propose some LCP amendments. Once we have done those things, it will be clear that Big Wave is a perfect fit for our forward-looking vision for Princeton Harbor.” – And then do exactly that.

Revisit the Master Plan. Does it need updating? How about the zoning? If the Big Wave Wellness Center is needed and doesn’t comport with W zoning, consider initiating a rezone for the area. Maybe more W zoning can be incorporated elsewhere in the harbor district? If there is a conflict with the LCP, work to propose an update that the community can get behind. Playing sleight of hand with a “Sanatorium” designation for the Wellness Center is offensive and belittles our intelligence. Follow the procedures and keep the playing field level, and there will be no need for engineering loopholes and escape hatches into the EIR process to get around obvious regulatory conflicts.

3. Have a Vision

At a recent Midcoast Community Council meeting, Jim Eggemyer, Planning Director, was repeatedly asked to share his vision for the Midcoast and what he saw were the potential opportunities and stumbling blocks towards achieving it. Although this question was rephrased for him a number of times, we never got an answer.

The same question is now being asked of the candidates for the Board of Supervisors and has been a central theme in debate over district vs. at large elections. People want to feel that San Mateo County planning staff has an understanding of what makes the Midcoast such a special place to live and visit – not just relative to other communities in San Mateo, but for the entire state. When residents feel like San Mateo County officials appreciate what the Midcoast is all about, and have a vision for preserving and enriching that experience, projects come to the table in a more favorable light.

Many people looked at, and continue to see, The Big Wave commercial office complex as not being very coastal. How is this different from an office complex in Foster City, San Bruno or South San Francisco? When county planning staff can anticipate those kinds of concerns and clearly show why this office complex has to be on the Midcoast and isn’t appropriate anywhere else (a CEQA requirement, incidentally), because it comports with a broader vision for the Midcoast, the public will better be able to embrace it as perhaps a bitter pill to swallow on its own merits, but as a necessary step towards achieving a broader vision that we are all on board with.

4. Avoid the Trap of All or Nothing and Discourage the Trojan Horse

The Big Wave project proposal could, and probably should, have been presented as a phased proposal (PEIR) as opposed to an (EIR). There is no reason the county planning staff couldn’t have said, for example, that the project should move forward in baby steps. Did the Wellness Center need to be right next door to the commercial office complex? Did the buildings of the commercial office complex needed to be sited in a cluster, or could they have been spread through the community in spoke-and-hub orientation? What if the businesses were geared towards meeting LCP visions for promoting aquaculture and agriculture?

The County could and probably should have requested that the developer come back to the table with an approach that merges the desired functions within the context of the existing working harbor – and guess what, if this developer couldn’t or wouldn’t do it – another one gladly would have.

Add the Trojan Horse element into the mix (“to get this, you have to accept that”) and residents on the Coastside know to be on the lookout. Time and again projects are brought in with a catch – a developer wants to help veterans, the children, the disabled, or some other perfectly deserving group with something just for them – but there is a catch. To get this, you have to also take that.

This song and dance has worn thin on the Coastside and is long overdue for being retired.

5. You Don’t Always Have to Do Business With the Usual Suspects

The land use attorneys associated with the Big Wave project proposal brag about their deep insider ties with San Mateo County building and planning officials right on their website. Not only is this unseemly, but when the same group of characters have been at odds with the residents over ill conceived and ill advised development proposals for decades, maybe it is time to start talking to different people.

There are innovative and progressive approaches to urban design that have been happening all over the globe, including in neighboring counties right in our home state. Maybe if we gave some new faces a chance to help set forth development proposals for the Coastside, including not just the direct stakeholders, but the back-room expediters that set up shop to help them see a project through – we would begin to see some change in the types of projects that are proposed and the tactics for seeing them through the public vetting process.

In some cases, the hardened, seasoned insiders that roam the halls of San Mateo County Building and Planning like it is their second home aren’t the right people to be talking to when it comes to big, potentially controversial projects like Big Wave – at least not if the project is to get any semblance of community support.

6. You Have to Have Infrastructure for Development – No Excuses

It stands to reason that for development to occur, cars need to move, water needs to flow, and waste needs to go somewhere. Yet with Big Wave, the very sore points that residents experience day in and day out with roads consistently rated “F” for traffic flow, a long waiting list on water connections with a decades old moratorium, and a waste system consistently at or beyond capacity are left as big question marks. Add to this PG&E power lines that have yet to be put underground to prevent neighborhood wide outages and ancient communications infrastructure, and you have a recipe for a sleepy shut-in style coastal township for the foreseeable future.

Want to see that change (and there are many who don’t) – then deal with the obvious infrastructure problems first, or at a minimum, in parallel with any sizable new development proposal.

Traffic and trails meetings that look to lower speed limits and introduce traffic calming roundabouts are at odds with major new commercial developments. Fix what needs fixing and at least commit to deploying the first steps of some long range planning against those infrastructure shortcomings, and you’ll be amazed at how much more open the community is to new developments (given that points 1-5 above are also taken to heart).

7. Listen, Listen, Listen

Listen not to developers. Not to their legal counsel. Certainly not to paid consultants. Listen to your voters and tax base.

Good urban planning starts with talking to people and hearing about what they love about their community, what they hold dear, and what they think needs some attention. Before even initiating the planning towards development in steps 1-3 takes place, take the time to conduct some polling and workshops without any specific agenda in mind – just to get a feel for what it is people want. Then use this in helping to evaluate the feasibility and desirability of any and every new project that walks in the door.

Incidentally, if the right project doesn’t walk in the door, go out and find it. Ask for competitive bids. When you have taken the time to listen and engage the community, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how easy it is to find the developers, funding, and support to make those projects a reality that is both profitable for its backers and embraced by the majority of the residents.

I hope this helps.


David Vespremi

San Mateo County Planning Commission
San Mateo Board of Supervisors

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