[BenIndy Editor: note that the Environmentally Superior Alternative is NOT easy to find in Council’s January 24 packet. Staff analysis of it can be located on numbered pages 93-95 (PDF pages 98-100) in Attachment 1 – Resolution – Statement of Overriding Considerations – Certifying the EIR. The complete DRAFT EIR is not provided in the January 24 agenda. It has a more detailed description on pages 6-53 to 6-25 (PDF pages 519-521. – R.S.]
Protecting Historic Benicia
This Tuesday (Jan. 24) at 6 p.m. the Benicia City Council will consider adopting the Environmental Impact Report for the mandated update of the Housing Element of the General Plan. You may not realize what this means.
Let me explain.
In the City of Benicia the need for housing is being addressed substantively, urgently and comprehensively pursuant to state law. But it need not be an either-or-choice between protecting historic districts, places and needed housing. In fact, proposed overlay zoning on historic districts and places is deemed an environmentally cultural resource significant impact for the Housing Element.
The proposed overlay zoning is a significant impact on the historic districts listed on the National Register, the highest ranking in the United States.
The Housing Element Update Environmental Impact Report provides a remedy which is to avoid the impacts to cultural resources by adopting the Environmentally Superior Alternative.
The Environmentally Superior Alternative avoids impacts not just to historic districts and places (city cemetery) but also reduces impacts to aesthetic resources, energy, geology and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous material, hydrology and water quality, public services, population and housing, and transportation when compared to the proposed project (i.e. Housing Element).
There are substantial reasons to adopt the Environmentally Superior Alternative so why wouldn’t the staff and Planning Commission recommend that alternative to the council?
One reason might be because based on recommendations from the Association of Bay Area Governments to meet the State Housing Community and Development guidelines is to have a 15% “buffer” number of rezoned parcels to meet the mandated housing units of 750. It is calculated that removing all the historic districts, the city cemetery and Jefferson Ridge and Park Road projects would still provide 50% percent over the mandate.
Another reason might be that applying the zoning overlay for multifamily/mixed use on Southampton neighborhoods would be a harder local political fight than targeting the historic districts and places.
Another reason might be that by adopting the maximum number well beyond the mandates and buffer, that future development and land uses are cast now beyond the reach of future councils. Once the sites are identified in the housing element this time they are “forever” sites going forward and subject to less public review.
But reasons to adopt the Environmentally Superior Alternative go beyond avoiding significant impacts to historic districts and places and reducing environmental impacts listed including air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. It sends a signal that when the Seeno or so-called Eastern Gateway project is assessed we could count on the council adopting the environmentally superior alternative rather than a Seeno-preferred project.
Or what about a Valero Refinery project? Can we count on the council adopting an environmentally superior alternative?
If not now, when?
Benicia has experience with public participation for the needed future community planning for the proposed infill development. Indeed, the General Plan Oversight Committee in the late 1990s used this approach to find common ground between those who opposed and advocated for affordable housing. The accord reached was to include the neighborhood in the process. Dialogue is better than majority rule because it fosters solution-based conversations and in the end better planning (e.g. East 5th Street process).
More compact infill development in the Housing Element’s Environmentally Superior Alternative reduces the impacts to the climate by reducing vehicle miles traveled because the development is within the city’s core. This is consistent with Benicia’s General Plan, which proudly is based on sustainable development.
We can thoughtfully plan our community based on the Environmentally Superior Alternative — instead of sliding into the “development by right” that enables developers to potentially avoid needed environmental assessment for some areas.
Where we build and what we build is a climate issue.
— Elizabeth Patterson/Benicia Mayor (2007-2020)