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Supervisors adopt new Stanford Community Plan

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an updated Stanford University Community Plan on Tuesday, effectively approving new policies governing Stanford University's growth in the years to come.

The new Community Plan is the biggest update to the University's growth policies since the County approved the first such Plan in 2000. 

County Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose District Five includes the Stanford campus, said that the staff recommendations fully mitigate housing and transportation impacts tied to the University’s future development, and protects the surrounding foothills for 99 years.

Simitian said there were really only three possibilities in connection with future development on the campus: “Either the University mitigates the impacts of its development, or surrounding communities bear the cost and responsibility for mitigating those impacts, or the impacts simply go unmitigated; resulting in traffic getting worse, an even worse shortage of housing, the cost of housing going up, and the open space around the campus continuing to shrink.”

“I think we can all agree that Stanford University is an extraordinary asset, and that it has played a critical role in the development of our region,” Simitian said. “And I think we all understand that in the years ahead the University will want to have the flexibility to grow as it deems necessary. But that growth and development inevitably comes with certain impacts around traffic, demand for housing, and pressures on open space. The question is, how are we going to deal with those impacts?”

“Given the options, I think most people would say we want the University to be successful, and we want to give them the flexibility they need to grow in the future, but we also expect the University to mitigate its own impacts,” said Simitian. “And that’s what our Board decided to do on Tuesday, consistent with our County staff’s recommendation, and the support we heard from surrounding communities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.”

“I believe equitable development is necessary and achievable,” said Menlo Park Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor at the Tuesday Board hearing. “I believe in equitable strategies that ensure everyone participates in and benefits from economic transformation. It requires an intentional and thoughtful focus on eliminating inequities and barriers. That means full mitigations for Stanford workers; full mitigations for housing; full mitigations for environmental impacts; full mitigations for traffic and transportation; and full mitigations for public education. We, the City of Menlo Park, are united with San Mateo County, along with the cities of East Palo Alto, Redwood City, Atherton, Palo Alto, Portola Valley, and Woodside. Please require Stanford to fully mitigate the impacts of its development activities on all of our neighboring communities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.”

Simitian said he was pleased that the Board agreed on a continuation of the no net new trips standard, which stipulates that even if the University grows, it will have an obligation to avoid any increase in car trips by using a more rigorous formula than has previously been in place. The standard has been enhanced to include the addition of reverse commute trips and Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) performance standards (and to expand the hours identified as peak commute periods). Combined, these additional standards will allow the University to continue to grow and evolve without substantially adding more traffic and vehicle miles traveled.

“We all understand now that the peak commute period in the morning and afternoon is not just an hour, but really more like three hours. And we also all understand that we need to be concerned not only with the commute into Stanford, but the so-called reverse commute,” said Simitian. “The measures that were adopted Tuesday address those very concerns.”

The new Community Plan also includes more rigorous policies on housing. Two key approaches that the Board agreed to unanimously are that to the extent that growth and development on the Stanford campus creates new demand for housing, the University will be obliged to accept the responsibility for actually building that housing and that the vast majority of it — at least 75% — will be on the Stanford campus, with no more than 25% on Stanford University lands contiguous to the campus in the City of Palo Alto.

Finally, the new Community Plan extends the protection of the adjacent foothills which has been in place since 2000 for an additional 99 years. A super majority (4/5 Board members) vote is currently required before any significant growth could occur above the University's “academic growth boundary,” which runs roughly along Junipero Serra Boulevard. That protection, however, was scheduled to expire in 2025.

“That additional protection gives us some confidence that any future growth and development will remain on the flatlands, consistent with what are commonly referred to as ‘smart growth principles’,” said Simitian. “In fact, a sustainability study conducted by the County in 2018 concluded that even if the University grew up to nearly three times its current size there would be room in the flatlands, negating any need to consider development in the foothills.”

“Green Foothills supports the staff recommendation for the 99-year extension of the supermajority vote requirement,” said Alice Kaufman, Policy and Advocacy Director with Green Foothills, at Tuesday’s Board meeting. “I think there may be a misconception from some people thinking this is a total ban on development in the foothills for 99 years. That’s not at all what it is. It’s just simply an extension of the supermajority vote requirement for 99 years. This is not an unreasonable requirement. Please protect the foothills in this very modest way.”

“We got to a good place,” said Simitian. “The action we took on Tuesday gives the University the ability to grow and evolve over time, but it also requires real solutions to the challenges of traffic, housing, and open space preservation. It also provides the University and the community some clarity and certainty about just what the requirements will be the next time we see an application for development on the campus. Our Board’s 5-0 vote was heartening.”