After months of meetings and negotiations between the Sequoia Union High School District and the town, the Atherton City Council voted down the tentative settlement agreement at its Nov. 14 meeting. The vote was 4-1, with Charles Marsala opposed.
"I don't see a need to continue this lawsuit," said Mr. Marsala.
District Superintendent Pat Gemma told the Almanac after the meeting that he was hurt and disappointed by the council's action.
"What the school district conceded to is beyond what we legally have to do," Mr. Gemma said. "I thought it was a win-win document."
Atherton filed a lawsuit against the performing arts center project last year over concerns about noise, traffic and drainage impacts, contending that the project violated the state's Environmental Quality Act. The settlement requires drainage work, as well as various measures to address parking and traffic, pending the results of a traffic study that's under way.
Atherton residents who live near the school are not satisfied with the proposed settlement, and they gave the council an earful about it.
"The residents feel poorly served and sold out with this (settlement) agreement," said Bruce Smith, who lives on Oak Grove Avenue.
After the meeting, Mr. Marsala told the Almanac that he had been in frequent contact with neighbors about their concerns and he had communicated them to school officials.
Residents at the meeting, however, assailed the settlement language as being vague and wishy-washy about traffic and parking mitigations, and they were especially perturbed that Atherton might have to foot the bill for extra police services at large events held by the city of Menlo Park or other non-school organizations. Carol Smith of the Lindenwood Homes Association gave the council a point-by-point critique of the settlement with recommended changes.
An undercurrent to most of the residents' comments was a deep distrust of the high school district.
"I beg you not to sign this agreement, which does not protect my rights," Corinne Zaro told the council. "I don't want my money to pay for city of Menlo Park events."
Councilman Jim Janz pointed out that while language in the settlement like "best efforts" seemed weak to non-lawyers, it really isn't.
"As a lawyer, I write lots of contracts. I know a lot of people resist agreeing to 'best efforts,'" he said. "It means that if you have to spend money (on a mitigation), then you have to spend the money."
Even Mayor Alan Carlson, said he wasn't sure that the town could get a better settlement deal than the one on the table, but he, too, agreed to vote against the agreement.
"This is the legacy of years of neglect of the neighbors," he said. "Maybe there can be a better deal."
The next step is for the council to meet in closed session with its attorney, Holly Whatley, to reconsider the settlement. A court hearing on the settlement is set for Dec. 4.
"I'm not taking it personally, but I'm hurt that they're such distrust, and almost hatred, on the part of some Atherton residents toward the school district and toward M-A," Superintendent Gemma told the Almanac.
He said school officials have made a number of concessions to neighbors in the past five years, including dropping a plan to install lights on the football field for night games.
"In hindsight, some of the neighbor saw that and thought, 'We won. Now we can go after even more,' instead of seeing the district as being a good neighbor," Mr. Gemma said.
He said concerns about paying for additional police officers at large events is "a non-issue." The district would make financial arrangements for extra security, just as it has for events at Woodside High School's new performing arts center, Mr. Gemma said.
Construction on the 31,000-square-foot theater with seating for 483 people is going forward, with completion expected in 19 months, he said.
"Frankly, we could have just gone to court, because it's really not a viable lawsuit. Anything we agreed to is beyond what we had to do; but much of what's in the settlement we would have done anyway," Mr. Gemma said.