Just a refresher post pointing at the State of the City address I gave back in March that addresses, in more detail, the background behind San Carlos’ current development outlook, and the choices we can make as a community about it.
This is op ed was published in the Daily Post on Thursday, September 26, 2019. I’ll post a link to the online article on the Post’s website as soon as it’s available.
About ten years ago San Carlos updated its General Plan, the master document defining how the community wants to see itself evolve. That was in the depths of the Great Recession. The ensuing years saw a major economic turnaround in our community along with rapidly increasing development. About a year ago I learned major commercial projects were in the offing. We’ve been discovered by developers and there’s no turning back from that.
Given this, revisiting what we want San Carlos to look like, and what we expect developers to provide the community in exchange for the privilege of being allowed to build here, ought to be the Council’s highest priority.
But my gut tells me such a review is not going to happen. At least not unless the community speaks up.
There’s about 2 million square feet of commercial space, some already under construction, targeted for the area between the freeway and Old County Road near Brittan Avenue. The majority involves sites recently purchased by a single major biotech campus developer. To put that in perspective, we currently have 1.4 million square feet of commercial space…and that’s the product of almost a century’s worth of activity. The next few years may see us at least double that first century’s construction.
I’m not anti-development. Having companies invest in San Carlos gives us the chance to improve our community in ways which benefit our residents. But it’s a delicate balancing act: development also brings traffic, exacerbates the housing crisis and can cost the city real dollars, forcing it to forego community amenities.
The more than 6,000 new employees — an almost 50% increase from current levels — that would likely be coming to San Carlos need to live somewhere. Those that don’t live here will worsen already bad rush hour congestion on regional roads and highways. And lost amenities? The city may spend around $10 million of its financial reserves rebuilding the Holly/101 interchange, in large part to support this new development. That money could go towards other things, like expanding or upgrading parks.
Those two million square feet could well be just the beginning. There are large properties (e.g., Delta Star, the rock crushing plant, the PG&E yard) in our east side commercial zones which could easily become the subject of even more development.
From one perspective this is all going according to the General Plan adopted by the Council a decade ago. But just because things are working out the way people thought they might doesn’t mean we should just watch events unfold. We can choose to stay with our current policies…but deciding to do nothing is still a decision. What we are seeing unfold is pretty much at the upper end of what was thought possible. That alone argues we should review and update the General Plan, or at least the portions of it defining how we want to see our commercial sector evolve.
The Council is being told this is way too time-consuming to pursue and cannot be done in pieces. The latter is simply incorrect — communities tweak portions of their General Plans all the time; San Mateo is in the process of doing so right now and Redwood City is considering it — while the former is a matter of setting priorities.
Unfortunately, these arguments seem to carry a lot of weight. Which is why I believe we’re in the midst of making a non-choice choice which the community doesn’t realize is being made, and which it will come to regret in the future.
If we want to influence and guide the biggest round of commercial development we’ve ever seen, the time to act is now. In fact, I wish I had been more persuasive about getting a review started when I first brought this issue up about a year ago. But while making changes today will be harder it’s still possible.
But it won’t be for long. And I don’t believe it’ll happen unless the community steps up. So if this issue concerns you please get involved.
This is a letter I recently mailed to Governor Newsom, Senator Jerry Hill and Assemblymember Kevin Mullin.
Dear Governor Newsom, Senator Hill and Assemblymember Mullin:
I currently serve as the mayor of the San Carlos City Council. However, I am writing you today as an individual Council member, not on behalf of the Council. The opinions and perspectives expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of the City of San Carlos or its City Council.
I ask the State to take what steps are necessary to return regulation of the number of firearm stores allowed in a community to the residents of those communities, acting through their local governments.
After 18 months of effort, our Council revised the regulations governing where and how stores selling firearms may operate within San Carlos. This effort was sparked by a tremendous, spontaneous outpouring of community concern triggered by a proposed branch retail store of a major firearms retailer.
Those new regulations will impose significant limits on any new firearm stores seeking to locate within San Carlos. I strongly support the changes.
But they do not go far enough. And the reason they don’t is because court rulings related to San Francisco’s Measure H established that the State of California pre-empted local regulation over the number of firearm stores communities allow within their boundaries.
This is bizarre. We have the authority to limit the number of banks, nail salons and dollar stores. Such regulations have been on San Carlos’ books for years. Legal experts tell me we could, if we wished, similarly limit the number of grocery stores. Some communities go even further and ban all retail establishments, of any kind. Why should firearm stores be exempt?
I suspect the pre-emption stems from a desire to avoid legal challenges by those who fervently support the 2nd Amendment. That is a significant risk for a community contemplating regulating firearm stores. But each community ought to be allowed to judge that risk for itself and decide what it is willing to take on.
If we can regulate access to the food our residents need to survive – survival surely being an implicit Constitutional right – then we should be able to regulate the number of stores which sell tools that, whatever other desires they fulfill, have all too frequently been used to maim and murder our fellow residents.
Very Truly Yours,
Mayor, San Carlos City Council
This is a lightly-edited version of an op ed I wrote which was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on Friday, April 12, 2019. You can find the Daily Journal item here.
I recently attended the San Carlos Planning Commission meeting where the Environmental Impact Report process for a 68 townhouse development on the old Black Mountain Water Company site was launched. After the EIR process is complete, the Commission will review the project proposal itself, and decide whether to approve it.
In listening to comments by residents I realized there are some misunderstandings about how the process works and, more importantly, why it works the way it does.
I think the biggest source of confusion stems from the belief that, in a democracy, the community ought to be able to decide whether it wants any given development project, and in what form. The reality is different, and for a very important reason: to preserve liberty.
Communities do get to set rules governing what can be built where within their boundaries. While those rules must abide by State and Federal laws, there is quite a bit of flexibility at the local level.
But once the rules are set, and until they are changed, they are binding upon the community. Project approvals are not transactional. Communities don’t get to decide, on a case by case basis, which projects they want.
Instead, if a proposed project complies with the rules, it can and must be approved, although conditions may be attached. It’s what’s called a “development by right”. Failure to do so exposes the community to being sued, a suit it would almost certainly lose, and then not only have to pay damages and court costs but end up with the project being built anyway.
This sounds, and is, rather undemocratic.
But that’s because our system of government is not a pure democracy. It is a representative constitutional democracy, and those other two words substantially modify how it operates. In this case the constitutional aspect protects members of the community from arbitrary acts by the majority, however well-intentioned. We can require you to prove you’re compliant with community rules – that’s what the project review process is for – but, once that’s established, you’re good to go.
That principle was adopted because it’s the best way found yet to preserve as much individual liberty as we can. But, like anything, it involves trade-offs that people may not like. One of those is that it’s extremely difficult for a “by right” project to be blocked by retroactively changing the rules.
There’s a similar situation involving EIRs. Most people see the EIR process as a way, potentially, to block a project that can be shown to have environmental impacts.
But while that can occur, the law is actually focused on identifying environmental impacts and getting them addressed. That’s why EIR studies almost always end up talking about mitigations: what can be done to reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts?
Having negative impacts is almost inevitable, but it’s not, in and of itself, grounds for stopping a project. Instead, the project sponsor must address the significant (“material”) ones identified by an objective review of the project’s impacts. If they cannot find a cost-effective way to do so they may choose to abandon the project. But that’s relatively uncommon, particularly when dealing with something in short supply and great demand, like housing on the Peninsula.
None of this is intended to dissuade people from engaging city hall in discussions about specific projects. For one thing, that helps ensure a proposal complies with our rules, and that’s important.
But my sense is at least some San Carlans want more than that. Focusing on what’s coming next, rather than what’s currently up for approval, might be a more effective approach.
For example, San Carlos will likely face, in the next few years, a significant amount of new commercial development. Deciding how we want to govern that will make this a pivotal moment in our history. Getting, and staying, engaged in that discussion will better shape the future we pass on to those who come after us.
If you’re interested in more on this subject you might enjoy my recent State of the City address, available online at the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce website.