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“Selling Ourselves to Private Sector” Planning Commission Reluctantly Approves Controversial Ordinance Change

What appeared to be a routine change to the City’s ordinance code in favor of green energy was not well met by Santa Clara’s Planning Commission on April 12.

Commissioners discussed at length a plan to amend Zoning Code Section 18.60.050 to make fuel cells and photovoltaic panels an allowable use, meaning they will not require use permits before they are built.

While photovoltaic (PV) panels meet the state regulation as a clean energy source, the state has not decided on fuel cells.

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Commissioners did not have a problem amending the code for PV panels. It’s the fuel cells that are the problem.

Santa Clara needs to include fuel cells in the amendment to fulfill a potential settlement agreement between the City and Bloom Energy. In 2019, Bloom Energy sued Santa Clara challenging the City’s authority to require use permits and CEQA reviews for fuel cell projects.

Instead of going to court over the issue, the two sides have worked out a tentative agreement. While the exact details are not available to the public, the City says as part of the deal, Santa Clara would agree to introduce an ordinance removing conditional use permit requirements for fuel cells.

In return, Bloom Energy would provide ongoing reports to the City with evidence that its fuel cells are adhering to emission standards. Bloom Energy would promise not to exceed California emissions requirements, but it could purchase renewable energy credits or offsets to meet the goal.

Commissioner Yashraj Bhatnagar questioned if it was “the fox guarding the henhouse” with Bloom Energy using its monitors to report its emissions. He also asked if the City had made too many compromises.

City staff said, while not ideal there is currently no limit to Bloom Energy’s emissions, and this is better.

“Compare this to the current situation, which is right now if you install a fuel cell in Santa Clara, it can be powered by methane and there is no emission restriction,” said Assistant City Attorney Xander Abbe. “There are three applications pending that would be going forward with no limit on what can be emitted.”

Planning Commission Chair Priya Cherukuru was not buying it. She thinks the City is selling itself to the private sector and that this deal is “penny wise, pound foolish.”

“I would caution the City a lot. We are down a very, very slippery path where we are practically bound to change ordinances. We already have that by state, now we have private sector dictating what our ordinance should be and cannot be,” said Cherukuru. “Yes, you get a renewable energy, but you’ve lost all other…I wouldn’t say lost, that would be a strong word without knowing…you do not know the impact to other resources outside of energy.”

Commissioners Lance Saleme and Nancy Biagini agreed. Biagini said she had a “nagging fear” that the City may be in a position of the “cure becoming worse than the ill or at least as bad as the ill.”

The terms of the deal with Bloom Energy would apply now and in the future with no limits on the number of fuel cells that Bloom Energy can build in Santa Clara.

The vote to recommend the City Council approve the rewording of the ordinance passed 4-1 with Cherukuru voting “no.”

The Planning Commission unanimously passed a recommendation to the City Council to “include the evaluation of other environmental resources or impact to this ordinance change to confirm that staff will be able to truly validate and mitigate any impacts of the ordinance including review of biological resources, greenhouse gas emissions, esthetics, land use, cultural resources, hazards and hazardous materials, mineral resources, tribal/cultural resources, air quality, geology, noise and any impact to recreational and utility services.”

Review of Use Permit for Elite Event Center

While not typical, the Planning Commission was asked to do a six-month review of the use permit provided to Elite Event Center at 2670 El Camino Real in the Moonlight Shopping Center.

City staff says it has received 14 code enforcement complaints in the last six months regarding Elite Event Center and Santa Clara Police Department has received 3 service calls due to loud music, unruly guests and crowds congregating near the front entrance and rear alley.

Staff says it is unusual to receive so many complaints and it asked the commission to put additional conditions on the use permit including:

  • Reduce Friday through Sunday hours to 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
  • Have two private security personnel on site for any event serving alcohol.
  • Patrons cannot loiter in front and rear alley.
  • Exterior doors should remain closed during events.
  • No alcoholic beverages are allowed on site until a state ABC license is obtained.
  • Live entertainment will not be allowed until an entertainment permit is obtained from the police department.
  • Maximum guests will not exceed 370.

A representative for Elite Events Center agreed to the conditions and said the company is dedicated to being a part of the Santa Clara community.

The use permit will return to the Planning Commission in six months for another review.

Consent Calendar and Other Business

Commissioner Mario Bouza was absent from the meeting and excused.

The Commission approved two items on the consent calendar:

  • The Planning Commission meeting minutes from Jan. 11, 2023.
  • The expansion of on-site sale and consumption of beer and wine for a restaurant and bakery at 2339 and 2341 El Camino Real.

During commissioner comments, Saleme lamented the fact that the commissioners seem to be in a pattern of “urgency hostages” where meetings are at the last second and there’s no opportunity to course correct or do any kind of review that has a meaningful change for the future. He says he felt blindsided by the electric power ordinance discussed earlier in the meeting.

The next Planning Commission meeting is May 24, 2023 at 6 p.m.

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