One great thing about the city of Novato's website is that interested citizens can see video's of their City Council in action. Plus, every once in a while, a lot happens in a small amount of time.
For example, a recent agenda item on the mixed use development went off with the choreographed precision that council members Denise Athas, Eric Lucan and Jeanne MacLeamy intended when they wrote up their comment cards before the meeting. I strongly encourage Patch readers to look at the video, the discussion started at about 8:30 p.m.
There were 15 speeches by citizens and 14 of those speeches opposed the approval of the project in its current configuration. Only Coy Smith, executive director of the and a Petaluma resident, spoke for approval. Very importantly, most of those objecting were not opposing the project per se, but simply raising practical concerns. There was a discussion about a right of way owned by the city was to be transferred over to the Los Angeles-based developer as part of the deal (the discussions are ongoing on that portion of the project).
Only a handful of those speaking, perhaps three, were advocating on-site housing for the 300 or so new hires at the development — mostly hotel service jobs. Many, including myself, argued that this project would have housing implications and that the staff should study those implications prior to approval. As you will find stated by the speakers in the meeting minutes, there were serious and deeply thoughtful reasons for taking more time, including as to the environmental impact report approval and to the merits of the project. Here are some reasons:
- The actual number of employees for the project has not been defined at anything more than a SWAG level. Before even getting to the policy decision that might come from the data, probably eight of the 15 speakers asked for study on that issue — just the facts.
- The "service workers" who will provide labor at the project, thought to exceed 200, perhaps by a lot, out of a SWAG estimate of 300 total jobs, will either travel by bus or junker. We all agree that public transportation has a crucial role here. Councilwoman Pat Eklund pointed out that there are two bus routes that run from Highway 101, but that Golden Gate Transit is in bad shape and they're dropping one line — "consolidating." Also, the bus, at best, only runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The hotel on the Hanna Ranch property will be a full mile from the bus drop off at Rowland and 101, and no provision was made for how the service workers are going to get to their jobs and back.
- I am not an advocate of workforce housing at the site. Those who objected to it had some valid points — and some BS points — but building housing right there is not something that I would insist upon. However, to my surprise, there was a practical "on-site" or "near site" possibility spoken for. Even so, I wouldn't want it for density and location and public transit access reasons. Remember, these jobs might translate to 1,000 or so individuals to be housed somewhere and will escalate our RHNA numbers from where they otherwise would be. If one accepts that unavoidable fact, then I have to agree those who said that some responsibility for housing contribution needed to reside with the developers for something this big. There were many stated objections, but getting a better study on the housing issue was mentioned often.
- Lucan argued against any such "project by project" approach, saying that real problem was the RHNA numbers themselves. He said that the focus of the citizenry and the council should be on changing those numbers, not on such linkage, and then said that should be the case even though getting them changed was likely impossible. Even more frightening, he looked and sounded authoritative when he said that.
- The citizens were not asking to stop the project. I'd say 11 of 15 speakers at the meeting were OK with it but just wanted further study on measurable issues.
- Among those issues was that there is "only the front door" for the entire shoping complex — Rowland Boulevard — and there have been incidents when people have been trapped there in unmoving traffic for a long time. That point was made several times as a further objection to the project as a whole. The city will be giving up its "floating easement" which allows it to built a road to connect to Highway 37 to the south. Caltrans is not a fan of that idea now, but it would be a huge benefit to have a true roadway — four lanes, even two — to 37, and that is being given up. However, the request was simply that the value of that easement, and also an acre-plus of city property, needed to be calculated prior to giving public property away. That and all of the other requests were ignored.
- Nor were the most serious issues brought up by the Hanna Ranch discussion addressed by the council members. MacLeamy simply stated that she'd heard "a lot of doom and gloom" but didn't feel that way herself. That was not, to any extent, any truly address to most of the specific and very carefully stated arguments against immediate approval voiced by 14 out of 15 of the speakers, the single "pro" speaker being a professional in his pro-business role.
The citizens were polite, conciliatory, and if you see the video, you'll see that their positions were thoughtful and studied. Also, definite mistakes in the EIR were pointed out by Eklund. So were direct misrepresentations by city staff as to Novato's position on the question of a roadway to Highway 37 and on other issues. However, this council felt utterly secure in ignoring the 14-to-1 opposition that spoke at the meeting.
Why? Because they know that out of about 28,000 people who could have voted in the November election, about a third chose to do so. As a result, even more than was evident during the housing fights, we are in the hands of a City Council membership — namely Athas, MacLeamy and Lucan — willing to utterly ignore the wishes of its citizenry, the very citizenry to whom they have claimed to look for involvement.
If you, readers in Novato, continue in an unwillingness to become involved, this town will continue to be controlled by business and government interests who are concerned with their own profits and institutions to the exclusion of listening to their constituency. I would have been satisfied if the roadway, housing and employee transport issues had been at least studied and limited rational mitigation obtained. This was the approval of the environmental impact report, and not, as I understand it, the "merits" hearing. So perhaps there is some faint hope.
If the citizens again appear in such numbers and clarity to ask for further study, and it is not granted, then we should not wait until the next normal election cycle to change the composition of the City Council but rather focus study to the recall process.