[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Scroll down past this public notice to see a short list of previous posts – including several opinion pieces you should really read – regarding the Draft Housing Element. You have until 5pm on Wednesday, August 9 to submit your public comment. Please note that I bolded, enlarged and altered a paragraph from the public notice to include links that will take you directly to the named documents, so you don’t have to hunt for them on the very dense main page for Benicia’s Housing Element.]
Benicia’s Subsequent Draft Housing Element available for public review
The City of Benicia has released a Subsequent Draft Housing Element for 2023-2031 for review by interested members of the public. The Subsequent Draft Housing Element incorporates revisions requested by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in their response letter dated April 4, 2023. The Subsequent Draft Housing Element is available on the City website at www.ci.benicia.ca.us/housingelement.
Two versions of the Subsequent draft are posted: a clean copy and a mark-up copy dated June 2023. The mark-up copy shows revisions to the Adopted Housing Element in blue highlight; other tracked changes are earlier revisions in the prior submittal to HCD.
Written comments are being accepted for a seven-day period concluding at 5pm on Wednesday, August 9 and may be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Planning Division, City of Benicia, 250 East L Street.
[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 email@example.com 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.”
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 atthe ongoing rehabilitation of Vallejo’s city financesin 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 tocompeting 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 Pattersonthis 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.
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.
BENICIA – The Benicia City Council unanimously approved zoning amendments this week to facilitate new housing over the next eight years as part of a state requirement that cities in California create a long-term growth plan.
This formal adoption of the housing element on Tuesday came on the state deadline for adoption after controversy over the city’s plans. Last week, more than 80 people filled the council chambers to express concerns about historical preservation and equitable growth.
The housing element is part of the City’s General plan and it is intended to insure that the city can meet future housing needs in an equitable manner. Since 1969, the state has required cities and counties to adjust zoning rules every eight years to accommodate each jurisdiction’s share of the state’s housing goals for all income levels, known as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).
The needs assessment determined that Benicia should add at least 750 new housing units over the next eight years. Benicia’s zoning changes could accommodate up to 1,236 new units.
Most of the zoning changes are to the downtown area and the city’s east side. The permitted density for housing will be increased to 30 units per acre and buildings in residential zones will be allowed to cover 45% of the lot instead of 40%. The building height limit in some zones will be increased to three stories instead of the current limits of two to two-and-a-half stories.
Community comments focused on concerns related to Benicia’s historical sites and districts. Several community members brought up concerns about a portion of the Benicia City Cemetery that had been included in the list of sites for possible development. Others spoke about impacts to historic districts that could affect not only specific sites but the character of Benicia.
In preserving the historical aspects of this town, “it’s not just the buildings, it’s the setting, it’s the entire context.” said Benicia resident Linda Chandler.
Many of the commenters requested that the council reject the current housing element and instead revise the proposed project to reflect an alternative identified in an environmental review. The alternative would have significantly reduced impacts to the city’s historic resources by eliminating the rezoning of all of the locations in Benicia’s two historic districts, the downtown area and the Arsenal district.
One of the key complaints from community members about the housing element was that moderate and low income units were more heavily distributed in the east side when the intent of state’s housing law is to create an even distribution of housing units available to all income levels.
Marilyn Bardet, who has lived on the east side for 37 years, expressed environmental justice concerns about locations in the Arsenal Historic district. She noted that one of the locations, 1471 Park Road, is in a high traffic area close to the Valero refinery and the asphalt plant that may emit dangerous chemicals. “It is surrounded by active pipelines and I-780,” she said. “This is no place to put children and families, especially low-income folks.”
According to the city staff, only certain sites qualify for low income housing and the staff evenly distributed the low income units across all the available sites. But the east side does have two large sites that meet the qualifications and can accommodate a large number of low income units.
They also noted that the downtown area offered sites that furthered local and state goals of reducing vehicle miles traveled by creating housing near transit, jobs and services.
Mayor Steve Young pleaded with the community members to support the housing element, saying the benefits of the housing development planning include creating more walkable cities, reducing homelessness and reducing commutes.
The mayor also broached more personal and localized points in his appeal to Benicia residents, “Our kids would like to live here and they can’t afford to do that because the houses are simply too expensive and there are not enough of them.”
He added that a variety of housing stock could provide more appropriate housing for seniors and improve the city’s finances. “Frankly, more people and more growth means more tax revenue and we need more tax revenue if we are going to maintain the level of community services that people have come to expect,” he said.
Councilmember Trevor Macenski said that he thought the council has gone above and beyond in their community engagement efforts for the housing element, holding 25 public meetings on the issue.
City staff did make one change based on the community concerns by removing a portion of the cemetery from the list of potential development sites. The staff said that the cemetery site was one of the only sites that could be feasibly removed without requiring extensive revisions that would not allow the City to meet the state’s Jan. 31 deadline.
According to the city attorney, failure to meet the deadline would expose the city to lawsuits from housing advocacy groups and the city would be vulnerable to state laws such as the builders remedy which allow developers to circumvent the local approval process in jurisdictions that are not in compliance with state law. The state could even go as far as to revoke the city’s right to issue permits at all.
“It is entirely feasible that if we don’t do the final adoption of the zoning map tonight, a developer… could build anywhere at any height, at any density and the city would lose all discretion,” Young said. “That’s why the Jan. 31 deadline was so important and why we are intent on meeting that deadline to preserve our ability to regulate housing development.”