Category Archives: Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Seeno in Benicia – here we go again…

Warning and good advice by architect of Benicia’s General Plan, former mayor Elizabeth Patterson

EL PAT’S FORUM

by ELIZABETH PATTERSON
Benicia, California

May 26, 2022

Tail wagging the dog – a Benicia story

Many moons ago – before the red moon and blue moon – city leaders began the planning process for developing Sky Valley (1990s). Imagine suburban development like what is happening on Columbus Parkway along Lake Herman Road. More streets, water lines for more water and more traffic with more carbon emissions.

The first tail wagging.  Sky Valley planning process was the  tail wagging the dog. Why? Because the then General Plan was old and did not anticipate that kind of growth. The city council decision makers balked at paying for a general plan update. A group of organized citizens proposed to the council that the council establish a task force to determine wither the General Plan should be updated. The task force with a consultant was approved, and reported to the city council the need for an update.  Council adopted a resolution establishing a commission which was charged with leading the community discussion. The Council resolution included substantial city funds for the commission and future consultants including an economic assessment.

Take note that there are details to this story which I have provided in earlier postings such as a citizen collecting signatures in opposition to Sky Valley development and a vote by council to not move forward. This was after the respected city manager at the time initiated a specific plan process. The public was treated like most of these processes — being fed information in meetings and not being part of the ownership of the decision. Indeed one of the finest consultants in California known for her public participation process quit because of this flawed process. But I digress.

What a community-led process is. The General Plan update process was led by the General Plan Oversight Committee (GPOC – pronounced gee pock). There were panels of experts on property rights, geologic issues, affordable housing, open space and conservation and economics. By consensus – not brute power – GPOC found common ground in a shared vision for Benicia. And that shared and adopted vision is our current General Plan.

But that dog’s tail is wagging again. And this story follows a red moon. [This has nothing to do with the story but it does add color].

The second tail wagging. Coincidentally at the May 17th council meetings  two tails were on the agenda. Let me explain: as a result of the community led GPOC, the consensus was that in keeping with the vision for Benicia as a small town, smart growth and sustainable development, an urban growth boundary line (UGBL) would be established along Lake Herman Road excluding urban development requiring municipal services. This is another story I’ve written about and to keep this posting shorter I will just say that because of council wavering on the UGBL, citizens ran an initiative in 2003 to establish the UGBL by a vote that cannot be undone by Council. That initiative must be renewed after twenty years. The council voted to place the renewal of that initiative on the ballot this coming November.

Seeno Again. And at this same May 17 council meeting – coincidentally – council approved a planning process for what is called the Seeno property, establishing a “community-led” process to recommend a “vision” for the Seeno property. The property owner goes by another name now WCHB. But it is Seeno. So who is Seeno and where is the property?

Google Seeno and you will find stories of blatant destruction of wetlands and millions of fines paid – the price of doing business. You will find law suits against communities such as Brentwood for denying one of their projects. You will find in the 1980s about how Seeno built a commercial building in Concord that exceeded the Concord Airport safe aviation height. You will find articles about how the federal government and over 20 agencies “raided” the corporate offices in Concord. It had something to do with politics in Nevada and death threats on both sides. Seeno. They even filed a lawsuit against the City of Benicia for its planning efforts for creating walkable and bikable streets in the Industrial Park. They were not successful. And that family-owned business has owned over 530 acres here in Benicia west of East 2nd and along Lake Herman Road for over 35 years.

The current General Plan is the vision for Benicia. To change that vision requires a public process and an amendment . . .  and CEQA. The overarching goal of the General Plan is sustainable development. There are a multitude of goals and policies about land use, walkability, water, traffic and economic goals and policies. All of these are the guiding principles for development. It’s the constitution for land use. It’s the law.

At the May meeting Council adopted resolutions and approved consultants to determine a “vision” for the Seeno property. The “community-led” process is similar to the failed process in the Sky Valley experience. The planning consultant will meet with the council subcommittee of two (Young and Macenski) and then meet with the “community-led” public meeting.

Community-led process. So what is the community-led process? Three or so public meetings where you can show up and listen and comment. No formal commission. No stakeholder process. No ownership. Will this meeting process review the General Plan especially for the overarching goal of sustainability and more specific considerations of topography, view sheds, and other quality of life and city policies?

The scope of work for the two consultants – planner and economist – make no mention that the General Plan is the first step for considering the use of the Seeno property. Opportunities and constraints are fundamental planning approaches. I wrote a white paper on this very topic in anticipation of development of the Seeno site. The General Plan goals and policies are where one starts for “opportunities and constraints”. If the current planning process anticipates changing the land use, start with the existing framework. By the way, in the 1990s the Benicia Industrial Park Association conducted a robust campaign against housing/mixed use for the whole area including Seeno.

Best planning tool is not being used. Secondly and for a technical reason, a review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is not going to be done. The technical reason reminds me of the expression of “do what you want and ask for forgiveness later”. Why? Because CEQA is the best planning tool we have in California.  CEQA is intended to inform government decision makers and the public about the potential environmental effects of proposed activities and to prevent significant, avoidable environmental damage. It asks nearly all the questions one would want to ask about development. Think about it. Would we have built an asphalt plant near residential development if CEQA had existed? When will the carbon footprint be assessed? What are the potential off-setting strategies for the carbon footprint?

Water. Water supply. The cost of water treatment. When will these issues be addressed and what will be recommended and how much will it cost?

Not doing a CEQA-like process means that is less likely a proposed development will avoid impacts. What is more commonly done is mitigation for impacts. Meaning instead of avoiding potential water supply issues, CEQA could address with rain water capture, industrial above the ground cisterns. Avoiding storm water pollution and flooding would be designed up front in the potential future project feasibility. But waiting until an impact is formally identified, the typical mitigation would be water supply and storm water treatment. Such mitigation approach is expensive and not sustainable.

Carbon Footprint. How will there be an assessment for avoiding adding to our carbon footprint? Better yet, will there be a benefit of reducing our carbon footprint? Or are we going along in willful ignorance? Without some kind of CEQA assessment the answer is disturbing.

Economics. Speaking of economics, the second consultant is the economist. And the consultant is the same firm that did the 1999 General Plan economic study and EIR assessment. Their scope of work has nothing in it to assess development for consistency with the General Plan goal of sustainability. Nor does it lay out a decision making process for life cycle cost analysis. This means the real cost of maintenance and operations for roads, water lines, water supply, waste water treatment, and other municipal services. For instance, residential development property taxes don’t keep up with the cost of things and therefore some municipal services such as roads are not maintained as good as they should be. Or there may be a need for higher sales tax to cover these. Or… there could be other strategies so the city does not dig its financial hole deeper with added cost of residential development or any development.

What Kind of Retail Matters. The economic scope of work will assess retail. Retail that provides services within commercial and light industrial development (the current general plan designation) is sustainable and should reduce driving because these services are within walking distance. But. Large scale retail – including a movie complex or chain retail – will wreck downtown. Just look around and see: Pleasanton, Fairfield, Vallejo. Where is the analysis for this effect?

We as a city have had the best planning processes in the past as described earlier for GPOC. We had internationally regarded planners conduct meetings, seminars and charrettes. We had a nationally recognized economist detail what cities need to think about when doing development. At one time we were leaders in reducing our carbon footprint. Best of all we have a specific plan for the Seeno site based on the opportunities and constraints of the land and policies and a graphic supporting the specific plan.  This was the product of a citizen-led effort.  Have we learned from our past efforts?

Oh, and did I mention that Seeno is paying for this work?

My recommendations are for the council to

  • Establish a formal task force perhaps along the lines of the Waterfront Park process (done by the same firm that the current planning consultant worked for). This would be a community-led process.
  • Ask how can we add value to what we have and avoid failed business as usual development.
  • Adopt a CEQA approach that is not an actual legal CEQA but uses the tools and approaches for assessment of development choices.
  • Ensure by council resolution that any agreement for potential future specific plan includes a development agreement.
  • Adopt a resolution affirming the General Plan goal for sustainable development and no net increase in our carbon footprint. Climate crises is real. Business as usual is unforgivable. I expect nothing less from our council.

    Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – 2020
    Elizabeth Patterson After three terms as Mayor of Benicia CA, Elizabeth retired from Benicia’s city council in 2020. She is vice-chair of the Delta National Heritage Area Advisory Committee; serves on the North Bay Watershed Association representing Solano County Water Agency; is policy chair for AAUW; is a lecturer for a grant funded semester course at Sonoma State on land use planning and management and water.  She loves to walk and hike with Alex, her 18 month-old puppy.

Benicia FINALLY gets a seat on the Air District Board

By Roger Straw, March 22, 2022

Benicia Mayor Steve Young chosen to sit on Bay Area Air District Board of Directors

Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Benicia Mayor Steve Young has been appointed as a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) Board of Directors.

The appointment was made by the seven Mayors in Solano County. The seat was vacated when the current representative, Suisun City Mayor Lori Wilson, was elected to the State Assembly and resigned her position as Mayor.

Said Mayor Young “I want to thank my fellow Mayors for their support in making this appointment to the BAAQMD Board. As the only City in Solano County with an oil refinery, it is past time that the City was represented on this important regional board.”

Asked to confirm that Benicia has never had a mayoral seat on the BAAQMD Board, former Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson  recalled that some years ago, she was “appointed to the Air District Board but on a technical mistake, and had to turn badge and binder back.”  She explained that “the district had miscalculated the population numbers to qualify the county for a city representative.” Later when Solano County qualified, Patterson received “a commitment from Mayor Price of Fairfield, but Solano Supervisor Jim Spering helped Price renege on his commitment, and Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis was appointed.”  Patterson’s recollection is that Davis’ attendance on the Board was minimal. More recently, Patterson sought to be appointed again, but Mayor Lori Wilson of Suisun City was appointed.

Solano County currently has two of the 23 seats on the BAAQMD Board.  Solano’s mayoral representative is chosen by the seven mayors in the county.  The Solano County Board of Supervisors has its own representative, currently Supervisor Erin Hannigan of Vallejo District 1.

Young’s appointment will be official when sworn in by the Board at their next meeting on April 6.

Mayor Young will also be taking a seat on the Executive Committee of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission/Association of Bay Area Governments (MTC/ABAG).

Benicia’s mayor calls out Valero’s big war chest ahead of election

The Vallejo Sun, By John Glidden, Feb 15, 2022

The Valero Benicia refinery

BENICIA – Mayor Steve Young says he’s displeased that Valero Benicia Refinery is poised once again to spend a large sum of money during the upcoming city council election.

The refinery dumped $200,000 into its Working Families for a Strong Benicia PAC last December, giving the PAC more than $232,000 ahead of the November 2022 election, according to campaign forms submitted to the Benicia City Clerk’s Office.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young.
Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Typically, a Benicia council candidate can expect to receive more than $20,000 in contributions over the span of an election or about 10% of what Valero has available.

The move has revitalized conversation in town between environmentalists seeking more regulations, the company, and local unions that are concerned that city officials want to shut down the plant.

Valero couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Young — who said he issued his statement over the weekend only as a Benicia resident and not as mayor — admitted that what Valero was doing was legal but argued “it is wrong-and extremely harmful to our community.”

“There is only one purpose in making such a huge expenditure nine months before the election: to scare off any potential City Council candidate who would consider running without first getting Valero’s stamp of approval,” Young’s statement read. “What candidate is willing to go up against that kind of war chest?”

Valero opened its PAC ahead of the 2018 city council elections, ultimately backing Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge. Both were elected. The PAC publicly opposed Benicia Planning Commissioner Kari Birdseye. Two years later, the PAC once again backed Strawbridge, this time as she made a mayoral bid, while opposing Young. Despite the PAC spending $250,000 during that election, Young was elected.

Young and Birdseye served on the planning commission together when the body rejected the company’s crude-by-rail proposal in early 2016. The Benicia City Council went on to reject the project later that year.

Young wrote that Valero should have a say in the election but “they should also play by the same rules that apply to everyone else under our campaign finance regulations.”

Young said the city’s campaign laws allow a candidate to spend no more than $35,000 on a campaign. He argued Valero should be held to the same rule.

“But Valero’s size and wealth gives them the belief that they can pick and choose who should be our elected representatives,” Young added.

Young said that to stop Valero every council candidate should reject support it receives from the company.

“In addition, voters should demand that any candidate take a public and ongoing stand that Valero should not support their campaign in any way,” Young added. “I call on all prospective candidates in the November election to make this pledge. If no candidate is willing to be supported by this PAC, where will they spend all of their money?”

Young’s statement comes as the Valero refinery has been receiving some negative attention.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced in January that it was seeking a legally binding order against the refinery to correct “significant excess emissions violations.” The district alleges that Valero didn’t report that more than 8,000 tons of excess emissions came from the plant over a 16-year period.

Last November, a contractor was found dead hanging from a scaffolding ladder by his safety harness over a piece of refinery equipment.

Valero is the largest employer in Benicia, employing more than 400 people. The plant processed 165,000 barrels of oil each day, according to its website.

Campaign records show that from July 1 through Dec. 31, 2021, the PAC spent more than $5,000 with Sacramento-based Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leonli LLP for campaign services.

Young, who has opened a 2024 re-election campaign, reported raising no contributions and only spending $29 during the second half of 2021. The campaign reported having about $900.

Meanwhile, both Largaespada and Strawbridge, who are up for re-election this November, reported no activity during the same period.

Benicia City Council debates changing mask mandate, decides to keep in place, will review again on Dec. 7

The Council’s August 24 Mask Mandate remains in place for now

By Roger Straw, November 18, 2021
Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Benicia Mayor Young reported on last night’s City Council meeting that “Council decided not to change the mask requirements but to continue with the same metrics.”

The mandate, he continued, “will be reviewed again at the Dec 7 meeting.  If our 7-day case rates stay below high or substantial for another two weeks, the mandate will be dropped.”

The Mayor agreed with the Benicia Independent and many throughout the community that the City should be wary of dropping the mandate before the holidays and onset of winter.  “I was urging to wait through the holidays,” he wrote.

Dr. Richard Fleming agreed: “While the council agreed to continue the current mask mandate until their December 7 meeting, there appeared to be a desire by some to lift the mandate soon if the current case counts stay where they are for two more weeks.

“I feel strongly,” he continued, “that such a step would be premature and would risk opening the door to more viral spread.  I wrote the Council this morning (see text here), to explain why I think they should reassess the basis on which they decide whether to retain or remove the mask mandate, based on scientific evidence.”

Dr. Fleming added that “Many city residents called in to offer their opinions, and the vast majority were in favor of retaining the mandate until the pandemic has subsided significantly.  A number of callers spoke of the likelihood of a winter surge in cases due to colder weather and holiday gatherings.”

Council rejected a motion by Councilmember Lionel Largaespada to ease the metrics governing the mandate, which would have basically done away with the citywide mask mandate at this time.  Largaespada’s motion died for lack of a second.

Mayor Young was prepared to bring a motion to allow local businesses to voluntarily permit customers to enter maskless if 100% of employees and customers show proof of vaccination.  Young wrote, “The idea generated over 100 form letters of virulent opposition, and were evidently persuasive to council who did not support it.”  Sensing no support, Young chose not to offer the motion, and joined the majority in support of the City’s previously agreed upon mandate metrics – requiring 30 consecutive days below the CDC’s SUBSTANTIAL transmission level (7-day case rate).

For Benicia’s current and recent 7-day case rates, see http://beniciaindependent.com/coronavirus/#beniciacases.

No final vote was required on maintaining the status quo.  As Mayor Young wrote, “Since we weren’t changing existing policy it didn’t require a motion.”


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Richard Fleming, M.D.


>> For an important analysis of Council’s discussion, see “Open Letter to Benicia City Council: Dr. Richard Fleming on mask mandate“.