CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that Councilman Andy Cohen and resident Morris Brown accused two planning commissioners, one of them Melody Pagee, of "hijacking" the commission's process of revising a section of the city's zoning ordinance. In fact, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Brown did not identify the commissioners by name; Mr. Brown said he was not referring to Ms. Pagee, and that she was not, in his view, involved in the "hijacking" process. The Almanac regrets the error.
On April 14, with more than one of the night owls in the council chambers rubbing her eyes as the hour hand of the clock crept toward midnight, Menlo Park's City Council voted to introduce an ordinance amending the city's zoning code.
Council members didn't view the decision as a controversial one. But Henry Riggs, chairman of the Planning Commission, is mighty unhappy with how the council handled the issue. He claims the council modified key points of the ordinance, which was drafted by the commission. The council's action underscores council members' lack of consideration for developers, and reveals the influence wielded by a handful of vocal residents, he says.
In May 2007, the council asked the commission to propose a clear and consistent standard for deciding how to grant developers exemptions from the floor-area limit (measured in square feet) on their projects.
In 10 public hearings over 18 months, the commission hammered out a proposal to modify the ordinance, which would apply to commercial, industrial, and some multi-unit residential projects. Among other issues, commission members debated whether exemptions should be granted for stairwells and storage space, and heard from a range of people, from residents to business owners.
When the commission finally presented its recommendation to the council on April 14, all seven commissioners were on board.
But the council's action, on a 3-2 vote, came after what Mr. Riggs contends was only a cursory review. The council changed the ordinance in a way that he says defeated the purpose of much of the commission's recommendation.
He argued that the three council members settled for a compromise between the commission's recommendation and proposals of several residents, who wanted the ordinance to allow for fewer exemptions.
"When you can have (one group exerting) special leverage, that's not good public process on the part of those being leveraged," he said.
The three council members who voted for the ordinance don't see it that way. They said they feared that allowing the exemptions could be viewed as a backdoor approach to changing the allowable size of a project. They maintain that the process worked as it should have, more or less.
Though commissioners and city staff members said the ordinance would not significantly change how large a development project can be, it's difficult to disentangle the disagreement over the ordinance from what Councilman Rich Cline terms Menlo Park's perpetual "holy war" over land development issues.
Mr. Riggs and council members alike have said that, when it comes to development, the city needs to get beyond the idea that a project's size is the only thing that matters.
But that seems to be exactly where this debate over an ancillary part of the city's zoning code has ended up.
To Mr. Riggs, the decision is another instance of the current council majority making things difficult for developers. The commission's recommendation included practical incentives for developers to build standard basements and attics and wide stairwells and elevator shafts, he said, maintaining that the ordinance approved by the council doesn't provide those incentives.
He alleges that council members were cowed by a handful of residents to modify the ordinance, out of a shallow and misplaced concern that the suggested exemptions would translate into bigger buildings.
But Councilman Andy Cohen and Morris Brown, who spoke in opposition to the commission's recommendation at the April 14 meeting, said it was Mr. Riggs who had manipulated the process. They alleged that he and another commissioner with "design experience" had hijacked the process in an indirect attempt to relax the city's zoning code. Mr. Riggs has worked as an architect for 29 years, with an emphasis in residential and "village commercial" projects.
Mr. Riggs called Mr. Cohen's claim "a stretch at the very least," noting that four of the commissioners who voted for the recommendation were appointed by the current council. (The previous council majority appointed Mr. Riggs.)
The council members who voted to approve the new ordinance -- Heyward Robinson, Kelly Fergusson and Rich Cline -- say this has nothing to do with their attitude toward development, or governmental process. But the city does have room for improvement when it comes to communication between the council, and its commissions, they say.
Mr. Riggs wonders what more the commission could have done to explain its position. He met with council members throughout the process, and the commission even requested a joint meeting with the council. It was told to submit a two-page summary of its recommendation instead.
In two years as the council's liaison to the commission, Ms. Fergusson has been to only two meetings, Mr. Riggs said -- one of them to ask for a variance on her home.
Mr. Cline -- who voted with Mr. Robinson and Ms. Fergusson -- struck a conciliatory tone.
"I don't blame the commission for being frustrated," he said in an interview. "If we don't take (their recommendation), then why are they doing what they're doing? That concern is completely valid, and it's something we have to continue to work on."
Still, Mr. Cline stood by his vote. He denied that he had been unduly influenced by a few residents, saying he did his own research on the issue.
The fact that council members viewed their emendations to the draft ordinance as only minor tweaks prompted Mr. Riggs to wonder if council members were either unable or unwilling to see the issue from a developer's perspective.
He drew a parallel between the process of drafting the ordinance, and the downtown planning process. Through that process, instigated by the current council, the city hopes to hash out a parcel-by-parcel plan for the city's downtown area, and a stretch of El Camino Real. Residents will weigh in on what they'd like to see; the council will have the final say in the zoning laws that get approved.
Mr. Riggs, a member of the downtown planning steering committee, said he fears that council members will modify the recommendation that comes before them in a way that will make it impractical for developers to build. That recommendation will be drawn up by a consultant after community meetings, and filtered through several commissions.
"The worst thing that could happen," Mr. Riggs said, "is that we go through this 20-month process, and the council says, 'We're so impressed with the process, and we'd like to accept the plan with the following modification: buildings along El Camino are not to exceed two stories....'"
Council members say they fully intend to uphold the will of the community through the planning process -- that's why they authorized that process in the first place.
But "we are not a rubber stamp," Councilman Robinson said, referring to the council's action on the ordinance. "We'd be negligent in our responsibilities if we were to do that."