So the council, in essence, agreed to hold a public hearing and make a decision on the project on Tuesday after that hearing. This move confused and angered concerned Almond Shuey neighbors, but the city attorney told the council it was legal. .... Some City Council members said they were uncomfortable with the way the meeting was handled.
And if they were uncomfortable with how the meeting was handled, four of the council members agreed to approve the project because, among other things, they found that the developer had addressed the chief concern of the project: parking. Back in November, council members expressed the desire for the project to have at least 18 spaces instead of the 14 that the developer initially planned to provide.
The project features seven seven single-family detached homes and one duplex, to be built on an oddly shaped half-acre fronting Oakland Boulevard between Almond and Trinity avenues. The developer presented a new plan with 20 parking spaces, "though some of those are achieved through 'tandem' parking, in which the space in the driveway of the garage is considered a space," the Times reports.
Mayor Sue Rainey was the solo vote against the project, echoing concerns among neighbors about the city's need to protect neighborhoods. The neighborhood's "character" was the chief concern among Almond-Shuey residents who opposed the project. Almond and Shuey avenues are lined bungalows built as early as the 1920s, though its outer area is zoned for high density housing. Apartment and condominium complexes front both Oakland Boulevard and Trinity Avenue, which surround the Almond-Shuey neighborhood.
One of the Almond-Shuey neighbors speaking out against the project, including the City Council's handling of Tuesday night's approval, is Tom O'Brien. He wrote a guest commentary for this blog prior to the council's November 17 meeting. Back then, he expressed concern about "the city's process by which developers and city staff come together to advocate for a project make it difficult for the neighborhoods to get a fair hearing."
He sent in this commentary on Tuesday night's meeting:
As it turns out, our voices were heard at the November 17th City Council hearing. We raised concerns over a number of issues related to the zoning, parking, driveway access, and trash collection. We requested that the project be returned to the Planning Commission to work out some of the issues we raised.
Somewhat to my surprise (cynic that I am), the Council agreed with us that the parking wasn’t really adequate, and that some of our other issues deserved further review. After a bit of discussion among the Council members, the mayor (at that time Gary Skrel) concluded that it was the consensus of the Council that the project be referred back to the Planning Commission.
Galen Grant, the Almond Lofts developer, privately contacted each of the Council members afterwards, and unbeknownst to us, appeared at the December 15th City Council meeting. During the “Public Communications” portion of that meeting, Mr. Grant told the Council that he had revised his plans to address the Council’s concerns, and requested that the Council’s decision to return the project to the Planning Commission be reconsidered. He asked that the project be heard again at the next (January 19th) City Council meeting.
By law (the “Brown Act”, named for Ralph M., not Edmund “Pat”, or Jerry), the City Council cannot take action on proposals made during “Public Communications.” This is only fair, because the matters raised in “Public Communications” aren’t posted in advance and therefore all of the concerned parties may not be represented.
Of course, fairness isn’t necessarily the City’s top consideration when it comes to pushing development forward.
While the Council couldn’t legally grant the developer’s request and schedule a hearing for the next City Council meeting, the Brown Act does allow the Council to refer a matter to the staff, and to ask the staff to come back with a recommendation at a later meeting. The staff recommendation can then be considered at a properly-noticed public hearing. That’s what Mayor Sue Rainey did – she asked the staff to provide the Council with a recommendation on “if and when” the project might be reheard at a later Council meeting.
The staff placed the do-over hearing for the Almond Lofts on the January 19th City Council agenda, as the developer had requested – not just a consideration of staff's recommendation to rehear the project – but the hearing itself! What ensued can only be described as an Alice-in-Wonderland public hearing (as in the trial of the Knave of Hearts, when the Queen of Hearts shouts "sentence first - verdict afterwards!) The Council held the public hearing, then voted to hold the hearing they had just held, then voted to approve the project based on the hearing they had just voted to hold after they held it.
The lesson to the neighborhoods is clear – even when a public hearing goes your way, as it did for us on November 17th, the outcome only lasts until you leave the Council chamber.