Stanford withdraws General Use Permit application

After offering to further expand workforce housing, the university acknowledges obstacles preventing approval of a workable long-term land use permit. Ahead is a new phase of engagement and dialogue with local communities.

Stanford University has withdrawn its application for a long-term land use permit from Santa Clara County, acknowledging obstacles on the path to a successful permit and committing to a new phase of engagement and dialogue with its neighbors and surrounding communities.

In an effort to bridge differences, the university communicated to the Board of Supervisors this week its willingness to expand workforce housing to the same amount sought by the county. However, Stanford still received no indication that a majority of the board would pause action on the permit to create an accompanying development agreement – a common feature of land use approvals through which Stanford would provide benefits to neighboring communities in return for predictability around the long-term land use regulations it would be subject to. This predictability was a consistent principle for the university and essential for its planning.

“We have taken this step with regret, but with a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges before us in achieving a successful long-term permit at this time,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

“Stanford remains proud to be a citizen of this region, deeply committed to contributing to its economy, health and quality of life. While we are stepping back from this permit process, we will be launching a new phase of engagement with our local communities. Through that process, we hope to gain deeper mutual understanding of the challenges facing our region, how Stanford can best enhance its contribution to addressing those challenges, and what the implications are for our longer-term campus development.”

Three-year process

Stanford proposed the new General Use Permit in 2016 to govern land use on the university’s lands in unincorporated Santa Clara County over the next two decades. The permit would have allowed the university to expand the availability of housing, including affordable housing, and gradually build new academic facilities at a rate of about 1 percent per year to support its mission. The proposal also included a range of features to limit traffic congestion, protect open space, promote sustainable development and provide accountability measures to the community.

A version of the permit was recommended for approval by the county Planning Commission in June, and hearings before the county Board of Supervisors began this fall.

However, agreement could not be reached on two components important to the university’s long-term planning. One was feasible conditions of approval for the permit, including traffic requirements that would be achievable with the amount of additional housing requested by the county.

The second was an accompanying contract called a development agreement, which offers investment in local community benefits, many of them provided upfront, in exchange for assurance that the rules and regulations governing development won’t be changed over the life of the permit. Development agreements are common in land use permit processes, and Stanford has several such agreements with other local jurisdictions.

The county Board of Supervisors approved discussions for a development agreement to accompany the General Use Permit in October 2018, but the board’s ad hoc committee charged with leading those negotiations refused to engage in substantive discussions. The university made regular requests to meet with the committee and submitted two comprehensive offer letters in January and June.

Efforts to reach agreement

As part of its June proposal, Stanford offered to fully meet the demand for workforce housing created by the permit through a development agreement, provided the university received partial credit for housing currently under construction on campus and in Menlo Park.

During meetings with supervisors this week, Stanford officials indicated the university was no longer requesting credit for existing housing projects and was willing to build or fund 2,172 new workforce units, including 933 affordable units – the same amount of housing included in the county administration’s recommended conditions of approval. In addition, through a development agreement, some of this housing could have been provided more quickly than through the conditions of approval.

However, this week’s discussions still did not produce evidence that a majority of the supervisors would endorse delaying the hearings to begin substantive discussions about a development agreement.

Another essential piece of the development agreement sought by Stanford was a commitment of Stanford financial support for the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) that, by law, cannot be required as a condition of approval. The university offered a package of support valued at $138 million over 40 years, most of it tied to growth in PAUSD enrollments that was estimated to occur under a new General Use Permit as increasing numbers of PAUSD students lived in tax-exempt university housing.

The agreement with PAUSD was tied to the university’s land use plans outlined in the General Use Permit application, which are no longer moving forward. Stanford is committed to continuing its partnership with PAUSD as part of the university’s longer-term campus land use plans. As part of a development agreement, Stanford also had proposed $30 million in funding for local transportation improvements in Palo Alto and San Mateo County.

“I appreciate the engagement of so many community members throughout this process, the hard work of county planning staff in reviewing our permit and the exceptional efforts of those in the university who worked to put forward a comprehensive, balanced plan for the county’s consideration,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “I also deeply appreciate our strong collaboration with the Palo Alto Unified School District. The Palo Alto public schools are a critical partner with Stanford, and we will continue seeking ways to work together to expand educational opportunities for local students.”

Local support

The withdrawal of Stanford’s permit application comes despite local public support for it. A recent survey of 638 likely Santa Clara County voters conducted by Benenson Strategy Group on behalf of Stanford found broad support for the General Use Permit and a corresponding development agreement.

After receiving a neutral description of the permit, 72 percent of respondents supported it. In addition, when voters were informed about Stanford’s proposed development agreement:

  • 75 percent supported the agreement;
  • 58 percent supported a delay in Board of Supervisors hearings to allow for collaborative development agreement discussions between Stanford and the county; and
  • 91 percent believed it was important for “institutions and organizations, like Stanford University, to have certainty about what regulations will apply to them when they plan for the future.”