Analysis: Results are in, but what to make of Bohannon poll on his proposed development?


See related story: Bohannon offers peek at survey.

By Sean Howell

Almanac Staff Writer

For the second time in a year, a poll has indicated strong support among Menlo Park voters for one of the largest single land development proposals in the city's history. The motivations of the company that commissioned the poll -- and the question of whether it will have any bearing on the project's prospects -- remain a mystery.

The poll was not commissioned by the city, but by David Bohannon, the developer behind the proposal. The Bohannon Development Co. is wrapping up its first round of negotiations with Menlo Park, asking for major zoning and general plan concessions in exchange for as-yet-undisclosed public benefits to allow for three eight-story office buildings and a 230-room hotel near Marsh Road and Bayfront Expressway.

According to Brian Godbe, whose company Mr. Bohannon employed to conduct the poll, seven of nine respondents "support" the project -- the most favorable results he's seen for a development proposal in his 20-plus years on the job, he said.

But the fact that Mr. Bohannon is for a second time publicizing the results of a poll raises three distinct questions, all of which council members have thoroughly debated: 1) Are the poll results reliable? 2) What exactly is Mr. Bohannon up to? and 3) What are council members supposed to do with this information, anyway?

The debate around the first question is fairly straightforward. Several council members have said they'll ignore the poll altogether, relying on the adage that any survey will reveal whatever the surveyor wants it to reveal. The counter-argument is that Mr. Godbe is a professional, and he's staking his professional reputation on the poll, which claims a 5 percent margin of error. Mr. Godbe has conducted similar surveys for cities and school districts across the Peninsula and the state, including Menlo Park.

Answers to the second question are more difficult to come by. Is Mr. Bohannon trying to pressure council members into giving his company a better deal in negotiations? Is he warning them of the public rebuke they might face if they reject the project? Or is this merely a gentle reminder for them to listen to their constituents?

The poll itself holds a few clues. Council members will surely note that it surveyed only "likely" voters in the November 2010 election, when three of five council seats are up for election. Still, it does not ask respondents to grapple with questions about the company's negotiations with the city, something the council will do in the upcoming months. It also doesn't ask whether a council member's vote on the project would influence their decision on Election Day.

But it does test, in a vague way, certain assumptions and predilections that council members have articulated in the year since the previous poll. The results indirectly suggest, for instance, that tangible benefits to the nearby Belle Haven neighborhood are far more important to people than the more ethereal goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That's noteworthy because council members have suggested that the project's fate might hinge on the Bohannon company's willingness to reduce those emissions.

The poll's final question poses a more direct challenge to council members, some of whom have said they fear that the Bohannon company, instead of negotiating with the city, will use California's ballot initiative process to take the issue directly to voters.

At one council meeting, Councilman John Boyle scoffed at that possibility. If the city were to tell residents the Bohannon company was making an "end run" around the council, voters would surely support the city's autonomy and reject the project, he said.

So Mr. Bohannon asked respondents that very question: If the Bohannon company placed the project on the ballot, would you vote for it, even if you were told the process represented an "end run" around the council?

Sixty-four percent of residents would, according to the poll a statistic that should only reinforce council members' fears, though Mr. Bohannon reiterated that he is not at the moment planning to mount a ballot initiative.

Still, if the Bohannon company uses the poll's results to guide its marketing campaign in preparation for a vote -- telling people, for instance, that the project would generate $3.6 million annually for local agencies, without mentioning that much of that money would go outside of Menlo Park -- the company would surely prevail, Mr. Godbe said. "It's a home run" were his exact words.

While council members have said that the poll won't weigh much on their deliberations, the political calculus suggested by the results is clear. If the city and Mr. Bohannon can't agree on terms, and his company elected to place it on the ballot, voters would approve the project by a cushy margin -- even if the public benefits the city is currently trying to negotiate weren't part of the deal.

Whether the Bohannon company would actually elect to take that route, or whether it's simply flexing its muscles, is another question. In order to place an initiative on the November ballot, the company would have a month and a half to get an initiative filed and certified by the city, and to collect some 2,000 signatures, according to City Clerk Margaret Roberts -- an unlikely proposition.

But the poll should at least remind council members, for the second time in the past year, of that possibility.

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