Category Archives: Seeno property

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.

Sign the Petition for our friends in Concord – Reverse the Seeno decision!

Effort launched to remove Seeno Companies’ grip on major Concord housing development plan

The Concord City Council will negotiate exclusively with the Seeno companies to develop the long-anticipated Naval Weapons Station project. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff Archives)

SiliconValley.com, by Shomik Mukherjee, September 29, 2021


In response to the Concord City Council’s decision last month to negotiate exclusively with the controversial Seeno Companies and its affiliated developers to oversee one of the East Bay’s biggest housing projects in recent history, Seeno’s longtime foes are launching a two-pronged effort to sway the council to reconsider.

Notorious for playing hardball with local governments and environmental groups, family-run real estate developer Seeno and its associated companies won the council’s approval for a shot at possibly becoming the master developer of the former Concord Naval Weapons Station. Discovery Builders, which was established by a Seeno family member, is listed as the group’s lead company.

The grassroots Concord Communities Alliance is circulating an online petition that so far has collected 1,300 signatures urging the council to revisit its 3-2 vote. Meanwhile, a member of the Democratic Party of Contra Costa County has written a resolution formally opposing the council’s decision and asked the party to throw its political weight behind a formal protest.

But the opposition will have to move swiftly if it’s going to sink the arrangement. Concord Economic Development Director Guy Bjerke said Tuesday his goal is to finish negotiations by late October. After that, the council could make Discovery Builders the project’s official master developer.

The stakes are high. The master developer would implement the city’s vision for 13,000 new homes and millions of square feet of office and commercial space — in essence, a new community — on the former naval weapons site.

Discovery Builders had previously sued the Navy to stop the project when it was in the hands of another developer.

Now the company, headquartered in Concord near the site of the proposed development, is poised to be in the driver’s seat to oversee that very project.

The resolution by Democratic Party secretary Kenji Yamada blasts Seeno for a “history of bad faith and unethical behavior,” suggesting the company’s negotiations with the city will either end in turmoil or lead to “poor-quality homes and environmental destruction.”

The resolution is currently being reviewed by the party’s “issues” subcommittees and could appear before its central committee for consideration in October. Yamada, who also is a member of the party’s executive committee, says he wrote the resolution as an individual.

“I was surprised that they were selected, not so much because of their atrocious record of ethical violations, but because the name of Seeno is so notorious among residents and constituents of the City Council that I didn’t think the council would dare to select them,” said Yamada, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2018.

The Concord City Council discusses its choice for a new master developer of the Concord Naval Weapons Station project during a meeting on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (Screenshot)

The development partners, which include Lewis Planned Communities and California Capital Investment Group as well as Seeno and Discovery, released a statement saying they were “extremely honored and proud” to be selected for the project.

“We look forward to working with the City of Concord and the Concord community to design and develop a first class project that the entire region can all be proud of,” Louis Parsons of Discovery Builders said in an emailed statement.

Former council member Colleen Coll said Seeno has a reputation of running roughshod over any obstacles to its desired developments.

“They don’t disclose their financials, the rules don’t matter to them — none,” said Coll, who served on the council in the 1980s.

Though vilified by environmental groups and others, Discovery and Seeno also have their backers, including labor unions. Well before the council vote, they had secured a project labor agreement with the building and trades union, which guarantees that construction jobs will go to union members. The site’s previous master developer walked away from the project after refusing to sign such an agreement.

The three council members who voted to award the exclusive negotiating agreement last month to the Discovery/Seeno team dismiss the criticisms leveled at Seeno.

“The art of diplomacy and negotiations seems to have a very slow learning curve in a state where 20% of the country’s lawyers live,” Councilman Edi Birsan said in an email addressing Seeno’s long history of litigation.

Seeno sued the Navy in 2018 to stop it from transferring the weapons site to Concord, claiming the influx of new homes would result in traffic gridlock. Last year, Discovery Builders sued the East Bay Regional Park District to prevent it from acquiring adjacent Navy-owned land for the establishment of new parkland.

Discovery Builders claimed the park district did not do a “sufficient environmental review” of the planned park’s impacts on the surrounding environment.

But East Bay environmental groups say Seeno’s track record shows it’s no friend of the environment.

Save Mount Diablo, which advocates for conservation of open space and natural lands, lists on its website a timeline of news reports detailing past criticisms of Seeno.

“There are clear ethical and environmental violations,” said Zoe Siegel of San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance.

It’s unclear what impact the petition or the party resolution would have on the council’s decision-making.

Kathy Gleason, a Concord resident since 1974 and a fierce opponent of Seeno’s selection, said she doubts the opposition will succeed in changing the council’s mind but she hopes it’ll at least serve as notice.

“It seems, the way we exist today, that if the public speaks up loud enough and long enough, maybe we’ll get change,” Gleason said.

ALERT: Benicia City Council subcommittee to explore Seeno development plans – proposed at Council on Tuesday, Aug 17

 By Roger Straw, August 13, 2021

Important to read the agenda, comment by email, attend and voice your thoughts at the August 17 zoom meeting

The Aug 17 Benicia City Council agenda is PACKED with important items.  One is the ESTABLISHMENT AND APPOINTMENT OF THE NORTHWESTERN STUDY AREA SUBCOMMITTEEThis is all about the SEENO PROPERTY, and appears in the CONSENT calendar, Item 20 B. on p. 7.

The agenda’s Staff Report – Establishment and Appointment of Northwestern Study Area Subcommittee, is measured and thoughtful, well worth reading (note some details here below).

The intent is to set up a Council Subcommittee composed of Mayor Young and Councilmember Macenski, who will “help City staff and consultants facilitate discussions about considering potential future land uses” of the Seeno property.

In my opinion, this initiative somewhat misleadingly re-names the Seeno property the “Northwestern Study Area”.  Renaming the area will not remove the deservedly untrustworthy reputation of the Seeno family and its corporate entities.  Utmost caution must be urged as the City moves forward to consider development there.

A Few Details
Download Green Gateway Business Community – A 21st Century Possibility, September 2008

The Staff Report accompanying the item, Establishment and Appointment of Northwestern Study Area Subcommittee includes a short section on Previous Planning Efforts, very briefly summarizing two previous Seeno proposals, and highlighting our 2008 community-led Green Gateway Plan.

 

It’s good news that the staff report mentions a City-sponsored “Specific Plan” 3 times, including a reference to the fact that adoption of a Specific Plan (Master Plan) is required by Benicia’s General Plan for any development of 40 acres or more.  A Specific Plan was a primary focus of our 2008 Green Gateway Plan.  Reference – see Benicia General Plan Policy 2.3.1, PDF pages 48-49, [document pages 34-35].

A Few Questions

Will the renaming confuse or fail to alert those of us who have been through battles concerning the Seeno property?  Should the committee include citizen representatives in addition to the two Council members?  Will the Committee recommend the City require a Specific Plan for any new development?

Alert!

Your continued vigilance and thoughtful input is needed!  See

Candidate Strawbridge defends her environmental record – the Benicia Independent responds

Christina’s comments, with my apologies and rebuttals

By Roger Straw, October 13, 2018
Kari Birdseye

In Friday’s Benicia Independent newsletter, I wrote that the one Benicia City Council candidate who stands out as a shepherd of the planet’s future is Kari Birdseye.

Christina Strawbridge

I pointed out that candidate Christina Strawbridge made a huge difference in 2016, voting to stop Valero’s dangerous and dirty Crude by Rail proposal, but I went on to give a critical review of a few of Strawbridge’s votes on environmental issues.

Christina wrote a friendly and detailed response to my criticism, and she deserves to be heard on the issues.  Here are her comments, along with my responses:

SEENO

BENINDY NEWSLETTER: “…she voted in favor of Seeno development…”

CHRISTINA: I did not vote for development of the Seeno Property. It never came before me while I served on the Council. This fabrication was used extensively against me in the last election. The closest I came was to ask Council in a 2 step process to put the use of the property on the Agenda to discuss. Even though a majority agreed to that request it never happened.

ROGER: I apologize for misstating the facts in my newsletter, however there is more to the story.  Seeno was back with a proposal, the Northern Gateway Project in 2015-2016, when Christina was on Council. She is right to point out that the project never came before Council – for approval. The project proponent, suspected Seeno surrogate Schwartz Land Development, approached the Council to be placed on the agenda for “guidance.”  Christina voted approval with a majority and so Council convened a workshop.  Ultimately the developer withdrew their plans when public opposition arose. Opponents of the project were strongly objecting to the housing element in the proposal, and skeptical of the developer’s claim of no relation to the Seeno family.  When a proposal comes before Council in a 2-step process, it is often fair to vote for an airing of pros and cons and discussion regardless of one’s opinion on the merits of the proposal.  But when Council convened the “guidance” workshop on Feb 23, 2016 Christina offered the following accommodating remarks as shown in the minutes: “Council Member Strawbridge discussed the need to figure out economic development within the City. The issue is what would be a viable project in the area. She would like to move forward with the project so we can see what can be done creatively out there (affordable housing, etc.).”  [Emphasis added.]

VALERO GETS GOOD NEIGHBOR SETTLEMENT MONEY

BENINDY NEWSLETTER: “[she voted] in favor of a nearly million-dollar give back to Valero…”

CHRISTINA: The million $$$ give back to Valero. I believe you are referring to the grant recommendations through the Sustainability Commission for remaining money in the Good Neighbor Settlement. This was at the height of the historic drought and the project that Valero wanted to use the money for was a large water conservation project.

ROGER: Valero’s boiler construction project was a good idea at the height of our historic drought.  But the Sustainability Commission’s settlement funds were no substitute for the deep pockets of Valero Energy Corporation to fund the project.  Christina voted with Hughes and Schwartzman on June 17, 2014 to flip $829,000 of the Valero / Good Neighbor settlement money back to Valero to fund the project.  The Community Sustainability Commission recommended against distribution of grant funds to corporate giant Valero, pointing out that Valero could easily afford the outlay itself and recoup costs in about a year.  The CSC preferred to spread the money over a longer period of time to fund local climate solutions that would otherwise be unlikely to move forward.  By flipping the recommendation, most of the remaining funds were spent, decimating the ability of the Sustainability Commission to make further significant investments in smaller projects that would benefit Benicia.

DEFUNDING OF BENICIA’S CLIMATE ACTION COORDINATOR

BENINDY NEWSLETTER: [she voted] “in favor of a budget that discontinued employment of Benicia’s Climate Action Coordinator”

CHRISTINA: Funding the Climate Action Coordinator. As you might recall the contract ended for the CAP coordinator Alex Porteshawver when she left Sonoma State University’s Center for Sustainable Communities to work for a for a company that wanted to provide less service for more money. There was thought that the solar project savings would pay for the coordinator. That was not the case. During deliberation, I asked the Community Development Director if there had been an attempt to negotiate with the company to allow some continued presence of Alex. Staff’s response was the company was not interested. I believe the CAP coordinator was an important asset to our community and Alex was really well thought of in the industry. Perhaps with a different staff and more creative thinking she would still be here.

ROGER: Christina gives a fair defense here.  Budget decisions are complex and difficult, and often must include compromises.  Public support for the Climate Action Coordinator was huge, and the numbers showed that she more than paid for her salary through city savings.  Disappointment lingers.  If Christina is elected, I hope she will work with our new City Staff and Council to revisit funding for a Climate Action Coordinator.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

CHRISTINA’S OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL VOTES & ENDORSEMENTS

CHRISTINA: Some things you left out about being environmentally insensitive with my voting record:

  • voted for MCE Marin Clean Energy
  • supported the completion of the solar project pump 3
  • voted to move forward for obtaining grants for the water reuse project
  • served/serve on the Solano County State Parks Committee to coordinate efforts to keep the 2 State Parks open and get the State to do work on deferred maintenance, (Currently on the board of the Benicia State Parks Association)
  • voted to fund the BRIP Business Resource Incentive Program whose goal was to assist businesses in improving productivity and viability through energy and resource savings. BRIP won multiple awards in combining economic development and sustainability for Benicia businesses
  • voted for a comprehensive water conservation program to save water and find funding for lawn replacement, gray water use, etc.
  • I have also been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee.

ROGER: Christina’s record on environmental issues definitely has some pluses, but it also has some poor marks.  Suffice to say, every vote on Council is nuanced, and there are often times when a compromise is called for.  In the end, however, the alliances we strike are in fact important, and outcomes matter.  In her 2016 campaign for Council, Christina aligned herself with Mark Hughes for Mayor.  Hughes’ comments and votes on Council have been uniformly insensitive to needs of the environment – he even waffles on the significance of human causes of climate change. Hughes strongly supported Valero Crude by Rail and has fallen short on many other important issues.  Christina is currently supported in her run for Council by Hughes.