[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 email@example.com or by mail to Planning Division, City of Benicia, 250 East L Street.
City of Benicia Consultants guiding us to accept housing plan in Seeno property
By Larnie Fox, April 20, 2020
Good Morning all ~
Bodil and I went to the North Study Area (Seeno) “Community Open House” last night at Northgate Church. There is a Zoom equivalent tonight that you may want to attend:
Online Community Open House
April 20, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. Zoom Link
I have to say it was less of an “open house” and more of a consultant-led workshop ~ the consultant leading us towards agreeing to build housing up there.
The elephant in the room was Seeno’s dismal record of not fulfilling promises and constant litigation. The Benindy has an excellent archive HERE.
To make anything happen there, we will have to amend the General Plan. Personally, I like the plan the way it is: the area is currently zoned for light industrial use with a little bit of commercial use on the Eastern end.
What I don’t want to see up there is more automobile-centric suburban sprawl ~ but it feels like that is where we are headed.
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.”
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.