[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: This is a complicated subject for a lot of Benicia residents. If you scroll past Ashton’s editorial, you can see alternative opinions. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to add your opinion to our growing body of commentary on the topic.]
Opinion: To check Valero’s influence and beat a budget meltdown, Benicia leaders must walk a fine line
By Ashton Lyle, June 7, 2023
Benicia will not always be a sleepy town on the edge of the Bay. Like Walnut Creek, Vallejo, and other neighboring cities before us, change is on the horizon. Today, I’m considering what would make the town more livable for its current and future residents.
First among the forces impeding a successful future is the city’s long-term budget crisis, as evidenced by a recent debate in the Benicia Herald. The city council approved its last two budgets with a substantial deficit, an obviously unsustainable situation over the long term. Bret Prebula, the Assistant City Manager, believes that the budget can be balanced. However, if the town wants to maintain the standard of services Benicia residents have come to expect, “new tax revenue is a must.”
Equally concerning to me is the role that Texas-based Valero Energy Corporation continues to play in our politics. Over the past 55 years, the Valero-owned Benicia refinery has been the dominant economic force in the city. Founded in 1968 by Humble Oil before passing to Exxon and Valero, it has grown to become the town’s largest employer. Its revenue is essential to the city’s finances, as property taxes paid by the refinery have allowed Benicia to develop its services that in turn, attract new residents. In 2014, Valero was responsible for 40% of Benicia’s revenue, and while that number has dived to less than 20% today, the economic weight of Valero has inspired support for pro-refinery politicians in city and mayoral elections. In 2022 Valero funded PAC spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on the city council race and printed misleading mailers while its Benicia refinery’s toxic emissions exceeded legal limits for more than 20 years, raising questions about whether vital information was being withheld from residents and regulators. All with relative impunity, a recent $1.2 million fine for recent toxic flares aside (an amount which represented a mere 0.01% of Valero’s profits in 2022.)
Meanwhile, the budget is in need of serious balancing. If Benicia is to throw off the weight of oil town politics, development in either residential or commercial sectors is needed if we wish to maintain our beloved services (such as an independent police force, library, and parks) over the long term. One only has to look at the ongoing rehabilitation of Vallejo’s city finances in the past decade to see the potential of a growing residential tax base. Additionally, if we want to finally free Benicia from reliance on a corporate giant, the town needs a larger slice of the growth from the Bay Area’s professional economy to increase property tax revenue and reduce the city’s dependence on income from Valero. In the age of remote work, accessible housing is essential to competing with local towns and bring knowledge workers to Benicia. If we want to ensure that Benicia’s future is not bound by corporate interests, the long-term answer is embracing new neighbors.
Equitable growth of the town’s housing stock is equally necessary to welcome more of Benicia’s workers to join our community full-time. The employees working in the city’s restaurants, shops, and industrial park have earned the option to settle down in the town they work in, but serious work is needed to ensure this possibility. Even after a recent decline in housing prices, Benicia’s median home is priced at $746,000. This means that, under aggressive calculations, a new resident looking to purchase a home would require no less than $175,000 in annual income. How will the workers who make Benicia and its downtown so special afford to live and work here if we do not build more homes?
These problems, undue industrial influence, a budget crunch, and a lack of affordable housing have a simple, but not easy answer. The housing crisis which extends far beyond Benicia’s borders necessitates new construction in our city. Considering where new housing can be built at scale in Benicia leaves residents with limited options. Due to the restrictions of the democratically decided Urban Growth Boundary, which prevents construction north of Lake Herman Road, there is simply not much remaining developable land within city limits. Unfortunately, the area which provides the greatest opportunity for essential housing will lead the city into a complicated alliance.
Seeno Developers own a large portion of Benicia’s undeveloped land and is now partnering with the city in a “Community-Led Visioning Process” process which aims to develop a Specific Plan for their land, in effect rezoning the currently undeveloped property from industrial to mixed commercial and residential use. As detailed by former Mayor Elizabeth Patterson this process is a reduced version of the coalition of community and experts who wrote Benicia’s last Master Plan. However, it is worth noting that this is only the first step in a multi-year process that will require approval by the expert-led Planning Commission and publicly elected City Council, with multiple opportunities for public comment which began in November of 2022 and will continue until approval, likely several years from now. This “Community-Led Visioning Process” is the beginning of a public and extremely rigorous process.
The seriousness of the approval process is especially important to note because Seeno is considered by many community members to be a bad actor, both in Benicia and the broader Bay Area. In addition to their record of alleged environmental destruction, associations with organized crime, mortgage fraud, and murder threats, they also have a reputation for taking advantage of communities and local governments. In an ideal world, the city would choose to work with a different developer, and any association with the company necessitates an awareness of the risks they pose.
Unfortunately, Seeno has owned the land that is the subject of the North Study Area for over 35 years, and they do not appear interested in selling. The mortgage is likely paid off meaning Seeno is investing very few resources to maintain ownership, and it’s plausible that the value of the land has grown considerably since its purchase. It’s also worth considering the potential for Seeno to invoke California’s builder’s remedy if the city chooses not to engage in good-faith discussion, as Benicia’s housing element is not yet approved by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Even if the goal is to remove Seeno from our city, creating a Specific Plan for the land is the most likely path to success, as attaching a Specific Plan to a property can raise its value to potential buyers, especially if it changes the property from industrial to mixed-use. This increase in valuation could drive Seeno to sell portions if not the entirety of the property to other developers, which has occurred in other Bay Area developments.
These conditions place Benicia residents in a particularly difficult position, in effect forcing a choice between desperately needed housing constructed with an undesirable partner, or the continued risk to Benicia’s services and future budget, not to mention the unmitigated economic and political influence of Valero. Given the revelations of recent years, it is clear that Valero has proven to be one of the worst actors in Benicia community life. Proactively implementing a mixed-used Specific Plan for the North Study Area will create the best opportunity for a sustainable and equitable Benicia. By working to develop the North Study Area in a controlled, sustainable manner, we can increase our tax base, make our housing market more accessible to new families, and reduce corporate influence over Benicia’s politics.
This process should be watched carefully by community members and media outlets to ensure City Council and Planning Commission members are held accountable for the results, especially because Seeno is known to be a difficult partner. Equally important is that Seeno needs to be made responsible for covering the cost of expanding the city’s essential services to the area, as they will be rewarded with millions in additional profit due to the zoning change. Benicia residents must take advantage of their ability to participate in the planning process via public comment at community, planning commission, and city council meetings. Any development is an investment in the future of our town, and the process of writing a Specific Plan deserves extensive thought, public debate, and democratic accountability to effectively plan for the growth of Benicia in the next decade.
Statewide forces, from the affordability crises to the housing element requirement mean that change is coming to Benicia and to some of its undeveloped land. Failing to act proactively puts the city in danger of Valero’s continued influence, fiscal crisis, or a reduction in city services. Let’s make sure our council members come into any Seeno partnership with eyes open, while also allowing for viable growth that will bring new families to Benicia.
Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.
RECENTLY ON THE BENINDY:
- Seeno / North Area Study – ‘Where’s the Table?‘ by Elizabeth Patterson | March 23, 2023
- ‘What’s Wrong with the Process’ – ignoring Benicia’s fundamental constitutional vision by Elizabeth Patterson | November 17, 2022
CONCORD/CONTRA COSTA BACKGROUND:
- Bad Blood: Seeno Family feuds over Bay Area real estate empire | May 18, 2023
- Concord Communities Alliance: SEENO IS AT IT AGAIN. SHOW UP SATURDAY, Jan. 7th at 9AM, Concord Senior Center, 2727 Parkside Circle.
- Save Mt. Diablo: The Seeno Way—Why the Seenos Are Bad Community Partners
SEENO stories on the Benicia Independent (many stories, going back to 2016)
- Benicia Green Gateway (citizen study of 2008, archive)
SEENO stories on the Benicia Independent (many stories, going back to 2016).
- City of Benicia Open House on Nov 29, 2022 – What’s the Future of Benicia’s North Side?
- Benicia Green Gateway (citizen study of 2008, archive)
CITY OF BENICIA
For current information from the City of Benicia, check out their North Study Area web page, https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/northstudyarea: