By Barbara Wood and Kate Bradshaw Almanac staff writers
East Palo Alto on Dec. 29 filed a lawsuit against Menlo Park over recently adopted changes to Menlo Park's general plan and zoning allowing intensified development in Menlo Park's M-2 industrial area.
The lawsuit stems from East Palo Alto's concerns about how the general plan update will affect that city, including displacement of residents, traffic and housing.
The general plan update changed zoning in Menlo Park's M-2 industrial area, east of U.S. 101 and adjacent to East Palo Alto, to allow an additional 2.3 million square feet of nonresidential uses, up to 4,500 residential units and up to 400 hotel rooms. The zoning changes will go into effect on Jan. 6.
According to Ellison Folk, an attorney at the San Francisco legal firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger who filed the case on behalf of East Palo Alto, "East Palo Alto bears a lot of burdens of this development," but does not receive its benefits, she said.
The lawsuit argues that Menlo Park's environmental impact analysis wrongly separated the Facebook expansion project from the general plan update, underestimated the number of new employees and the congestion and housing needs that would be generated, and didn't lay out sufficient steps to address those impacts.
According to Menlo Park City Attorney Bill McClure, the suit wasn't entirely unexpected -- typically, when a city hires an attorney to write letters about inadequacies in another city's compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, as happened in this case, it's a good indicator that litigation may be coming. But, he noted, the city hadn't received any notification about East Palo Alto's plans before it received a legally mandated notice of the intent to file a lawsuit on Dec. 28.
According to Mr. McClure, the lawsuit will not delay the changes. However, he added, development projects that rely on the new zoning could get stalled if the general plan changes are overturned. A very rough timeline for a full lawsuit would be between nine months and a year and a half, he said, but it could be resolved in other ways. The next step, Ms. Folk said, is for the two parties to have a settlement conference.
"We would like to see more cooperation in implementing mitigation for traffic impacts and more effort to support affordable housing," she said.
Ms. Folk said the lawsuit will not jeopardize the agreements that Facebook recently announced to donate close to $20 million to East Palo Alto community organizations, mostly to help provide affordable housing. However, the terms of the agreement approved by a coalition of community groups and Facebook say that $4.5 million of the donations to community groups are contingent on any challenge to Menlo Park's general plan update being "resolved in a manner that is reasonably acceptable to Facebook."
The Nov. 29 Menlo Park City Council vote to adopt the general plan update was 4-1, with Councilman Ray Mueller opposed. The plan says it could add as many as 11,570 residents and 5,500 workers in the M-2 area between now and the year 2040.