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AB 3194 Frustrates Planning Commission

What was supposed to be a routine item concerning a development proposal for two Santa Clara properties led to a larger discussion about the Planning Commission’s role within the City.

The Planning Commission was asked to approve a tentative subdivision map for the properties at 1530 and 1540 Pomeroy Avenue. The developer wants to subdivide the two parcels – one zoned low-density residential and one zoned agricultural – to build eight new units.

This is the second time the developer has brought the proposal to the Planning Commission. It was previously discussed in 2018 when the Commission and later the City Council denied the application.

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What’s different now is the state law. AB 3194 will allow the developer to develop the agricultural lot without going through the rezoning process. The developer’s plan to build eight units was approved by the Architectural Review Board but is only now coming before the Planning Commission, something that Commissioner Priya Cherukuru didn’t like.

“I’m just flabbergasted about how an Architectural Review Board, which is one of the smallest hearing bodies, approved eight housing units without a subdivision map in place or approved by City Council to even allow that kind of a conversation or even discussion before approvals,” said Cherukuru.

Under AB 3194, there was no need for rezoning, so there was no need to bring the plans before the Planning Commission until now.

City staff emphasized that unless the project violates an “objective standard,” it must be approved. Staff warned that if the City fails to find an “objective” violation but still denies the project, the developer can sue and Santa Clara could face hefty fines.

“It kind of sounds like our hands are tied,” said Planning Commission Chair Nancy Biagini.

“This is a done deal. The developers have pushed the envelope in all directions and just to the point where it would tear and pretty much checked all the boxes and are proceeding ahead,” said Commissioner Lance Saleme. “We’re basically rubber-stamping something that’s already been approved.”

There was also frustration during the public comment.

“Our rights are taken away with this law and the spirit of the law has really been abused by this developer,” said Jay.

Commissioner Yuki Ikezi was in the minority opinion. She supported the intent of AB 3194.

“I think the state passed this law for a reason. There have been projects in other cities – large scale housing projects – that were turned down because of inconsistencies between the general plan and zoning,” said Ikezi. “We have a dire, dire housing shortage in our state. Millions of people are suffering from it, and I think the cities have obligations to produce housing where ever possible, whenever it makes sense.”

Several commissioners also expressed concern that the item was part of the Consent Calendar because they felt it deserved a broader discussion that included the public.

Despite the dissent, the plans were unanimously recommended to the City Council for approval.

Climate Action Plan Study Session

The Planning Commission also heard from City staff about the Climate Action Plan. City staff plans to submit the plan to the Commission in April and present it to the City Council in June.

Santa Clara adopted its last Climate Action Plan in 2013. It asked the City to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. With new state laws in effect, Santa Clara needed to adjust its standards.

Under the current plan, Santa Clara’s goal is to have net carbon neutrality by 2045. If there are emissions, they would need to be offset.

Cherukuru worried because the City’s plan includes a possible Silicon Valley Power rate increase between 44 percent and 55 percent, on top of the typical 3 percent yearly increase.

“We are in effect, in our progressive way, probably creating a gentrification within itself,” said Cherukuru. “I am the voice right now of the seniors who want to retire here in place. We are actually pushing them out and the low income…Yes, it’s all in the right direction. Yes, they’re all aggressively good targets and goals. But also know the implication of implementing these targets are significant for several households in Santa Clara city.”

Other Planning Commission Business

Commissioner Ricci Herro was the only commissioner absent from the meeting. He was ill.

The Planning Commission thanked and wished Assistant Planner Jeff Schwilk the best in his retirement. Schwilk worked for the City for 31 years.

Before adjourning, the Planning Commission took a moment of silence “in hope for an outcome that is beneficial for Ukraine.”

The next Planning Commission meeting is on Wednesday, April 13, 2022, at 6 p.m.

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