[Editor – Excellent analysis and critique of Council’s ‘Housing Element’ decision on January 24. For additional background, see earlier stories on BenIndy below. – R.S.]
Historic Benicia Arsenal Advocates address City Council on Housing Element decision
January 30, 2023
Benicia City Council Benicia City Hall 250 East L Street Benicia, CA 94510 RE: 2023-2031 Housing Element – January 31 Agenda Item 10.A
Dear Mayor Young and Council Members:
At the January 24 meeting, despite testimony from many community members advocating for a better alternative, the City Council approved a Housing Element that threatens Benicia’s precious historic resources, puts future residents directly in the path of environmental hazards, and fails to further fair housing goals. [Agenda, Minutes, Video]
It didn’t have to be this way. Throughout the 12-month Housing Element update process, concerned community members raised these issues and pointed to better alternatives. And unlike many cities, Benicia had a large number of viable and desirable housing sites to choose from. The Council rejected many suitable sites, often at the request of a handful of neighbors, and yet chose not to consider the larger issues of historic preservation, fair housing, and environmental hazards that civic-minded community members have raised throughout the process. The comments from these community members represented longstanding City policies and values enshrined in the Benicia General Plan.
At the January 24 Council meeting, a near-capacity crowd asked the Council to approve the Environmentally Superior Alternative as identified in the Housing Element Environmental Impact Report (EIR). As stated on page 6-23 of the EIR, the Environmentally Superior Alternative would meet all the project’s objectives. This alternative would have reduced impacts on historic resources in the Arsenal and downtown and helped address hazards and fair housing concerns while still meeting the City’s housing needs and State of California requirements.
The rationale for the Council’s decision was apparently that, based on advice from the City’s consultants and staff, the Environmentally Superior Alternative might not actually be feasible. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that alternatives evaluated in EIRs be feasible. If the Environmentally Superior Alternative was not feasible, the Housing Element EIR is inadequate and should not have been certified.
The staff and consultants also claimed that the Council really had no choice but to approve the Housing Element as currently drafted, due to the looming January 31 deadline for Housing Element adoption, the cost of making changes, and the fact that they had not evaluated the Environmentally Superior Alternative for fair housing compliance. If that were the case, it would appear that the City designed the process and schedule to prevent meaningful consideration of EIR alternatives, violating the public’s trust as well as the requirements and intent of CEQA.
Let’s be clear: The Council had a choice. At the January 24 meeting and throughout the process, the Council had better options but chose not to act on them out of expediency or fear of State repercussions. The Council had an opportunity to present a vision for the future of Benicia and failed to meet the challenge.
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.
Council to pass Housing Element Update on Jan 24 – Protect Historic Benicia!
Where…. City Hall Council Chambers, 250 E L St. When…….Tuesday, January 24, 2023, 6:00pm
In response to the State requiring designation of sites for new housing, the Benicia City Council will be voting on an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and a zoning amendment package which would impact the historic integrity of the :
Downtown Historic District
Arsenal National Register and City Historic District
City Cemetery National Register District
The zoning amendment would allow higher density housing and 3 story buildings up to 35 ft. tall – and on First St up to 40 ft. tall – on selected opportunity sites. These sites are located primarily in and around Downtown and the Arsenal, and include the City Cemetery.
The EIR states that environmental impacts to the Historic Districts can be eliminated by removing the Historic District opportunity sites and is referred to as the “environmentally superior alternative”. The City would still have more than double the proposed housing required by the State.
Please attend the meeting in person, if at all possible, to show your support for this Environmentally Superior Alternative EIR, rather than the staff recommendation, and removing the City Cemetery site. Speaking is not necessary.
By Elizabeth Patterson and Steve Goetz, January 19, 2023
Please attend the City Council public hearing on the Housing Element scheduled for 6:00 pm on January 24, in-person or via Zoom. You don’t have to say anything, just show your support for those who do say something
Adopt the Environmentally Superior alternative project
By adopting the Environmentally Superior Alternative (ESA), the historic districts and places are removed thus no significant impact to cultural resources
Housing Element with this ESA still has more than 15% buffer as “insurance” for parcels that may not be developed at designated densities and affordability
Remove Park Rd and Jefferson Ridge as “opportunity sites” because city has already approved development
Reduce impacts to aesthetic resources, energy, geology and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous material, hydrology and quarter quality, public services, population and housing, and transportation by adopting the ESA.
Avoid potential threats to the viability of our heavy industry while also avoiding threatening public health and safety.
After adoption of Environmentally Superior alternative initiate planning for community goals for East side where most of the high density and affordability parcels are identified.
After adoption consider planning tools to achieve density and affordability, e.g. minimum affordability requirement range between 20 and 25%; required density for designated parcels.
Avoid losing additional land use control in the next update of the housing element (2031) through “by right development” if city does not adopt planning measures to meet state housing requirements
The following letter is from Steve Goetz
Next Tuesday (January 24) the City Council will consider changing the Benicia General Plan to accommodate over 250% of Benicia’s share of the region’s housing need. Specifically, the Council will consider adopting a Housing Element to the General Plan that will accommodate 1,174 units above the 750 units mandated by the state for Benicia by 2031.
We need housing so why would providing more housing than what the state requires be a problem? A review of the information developed for the Housing Element shows this level of rezoning will significantly damage the character of Benicia’s two historic districts and historic cemetery disproportionately burden the East Side compared to other areas of the city, and concentrate new lower-income housing next to heavy industry. In other words, the City is proposing an effort in gross excess of what is required or suitable for the intended purpose, meeting the definition of the word “overkill”.
The City’s own Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Housing Element says that the close proximity of the proposed housing sites to historic buildings will substantially damage the significance of these historic districts. The EIR says we can protect these historic districts and meet Benicia’s share of the regional housing need by removing the 17 housing sites proposed in these historic districts.
The EIR concluded that the project alternative to remove proposed housing from the historic districts is “environmentally superior”, meaning it not only eliminates damage to Benicia’s historic districts, it also reduces impacts to aesthetic resources, energy, geology and soils, greenhouse gas emissions, hazards and hazardous material, hydrology and quarter quality, public services, population and housing, and transportation when compared to the proposed project (i.e. Housing Element). Most importantly, the EIR finds that this environmentally superior alternative would accommodate Benicia’s share of the regional housing need.
The second problem with proposing an excessive amount of housing is that over 70% of the total amount of housing proposed in the lower income categories is located in the East Side. This proposal is clearly against the General Plan policy that requires dispersal of this housing across the city.
Finally, this Housing Element shows that this concentration of lower income housing is in the most environmentally challenged area of Benicia. There is a reason why there are some undeveloped sites in the East Side. These sites happen to be near heavy industry. We have located heavy industry away from housing so it can contribute to our economy without being a nuisance and without endangering public health. This Housing Element threatens the viability of our heavy industry while also threatening public health and safety.
Last week’s staff report to the Planning Commission on the Housing Element explained that these disproportionate impacts to the East Side are a result of the City Council’s direction. In other words, the City Council is choosing to propose 2.5 times the amount of housing needed for the region to the detriment of our historic districts, the East Side, our heavy industry, and public health and safety.
One commenter at last week’s Planning Commission hearing on the Housing Element said most public comments were only looking at how the Housing Element was affecting them and not how it could benefit those who need housing and want to live in Benicia. The comments in support of our historic districts, heavy industry, and public health were not generated by concern about how the Housing Element would affect them, but how it would affect Benicia’s future and the type of community we hand down to future generations.
We look to our City Council to address city needs in a way that balances benefits of a proposed action against the disadvantages and how it supports the city’s overall goals. The Housing Element is not balanced, but is overkill, representing new housing any cost. A balanced approach to meeting our state obligation for new housing is the EIR’s environmentally superior alternative, which satisfies our housing priorities while also serving other city priorities.
>> Please attend the City Council public hearing on the Housing Element scheduled for 6:00 pm on January 24, in-person or via Zoom. You don’t have to say anything, just show your support for those who do say something. You can also call your City Council at 707-746-4213 now and leave a message. Write to our Council members: