Benicia: What message was city trying to send Seeno?
Times-Herald

October 10, 2008

The Benicia City Council's action this week against Discovery Builders' business park plan was an exercise in democracy, futility, political expediency and - what many might come to believe - one of arrogance.

The council not only kicked the tires of this proposed 528-acre project, it blew them up.

After exhaustive meetings, multiple concessions, traffic studies, public hearings, more meetings, more concessions and even developer promises to upgrade a local school, the council voted 3 to 2 early Wednesday to send several blunt - yet mixed - messages to the developers: 1. Close, but no cigar. 2. Don't call us, we'll call you. 3. See you in court, or, most likely, 4. All of the above.

We're not taking a position on the merits of the so-called Seeno project. Arguably, while it would have created thousands of jobs, it also would have created daily traffic nightmares along East 2nd Street.

Environmentalists argued that it also would have significantly added to the city's poor air quality, and school officials contended that the health and safety of children at Robert Semple Elementary would be threatened.

Discovery Builders officials repeatedly asked, "How can we make it better?" then altered and downscaled the plan and ultimately offered to install an air filtration system and sound wall at Semple.

Despite those concessions, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, whose campaign last year included opposition to the project, began Tuesday night's marathon session by giving the plan an average score of C. She said Benicia deserves an A-plus project, and spent a long time issuing a laundry list of new changes that the developers should make.

And, right before the vote, Discovery Builders' Salvatore Evola agreed to virtually all of them.

It didn't matter.

Despite the city's staff's recommendation to OK the project and its city attorney's belief that the project could and should go forward, Patterson declared that the process was "flawed." She finally used that reasoning - some might view it as an excuse - to vote against the project, and two others joined her.

Councilman Mike Ioakimedes said he could not ignore the air pollution projections, while Councilman Tom Campbell never really said why he opposed it.

Seeno certainly has had credibility problems in other Bay Area cities, a fact not lost on project opponents. That also could have been a factor in Wednesday's vote. But the city may have created its own credibility problem by rejecting this project after all the protracted negotiations and hearings.

What happens next is anyone's guess. Evola is likely weighing litigation just as opponents would have if the project had gotten the green light. Given the city's highly mixed messages to Discovery Builders, we wouldn't be surprised if this winds up in court.

Clearly, when Discovery Builders first introduced this ambitious project several years ago - nearly a quarter century after it acquired this land - the council was dominated by a more business-friendly majority, led by then Mayor Steve Messina. The revised plans for this last large undeveloped parcel in Benicia called for a mix of retail and light industrial activity, with more than half the property being set aside for open space.

More importantly, the project represented a significant source for new tax revenues, which are now stretched as demands for services have grown more costly.

Any plan, including this one, can be improved. But there simply is no way to eliminate all environmental impacts or totally mitigate against them. So, if the city wanted zero traffic, zero pollution and zero noise, someone should have said something a long time ago instead of stringing the developers along.

Watching the Tuesday / Wednesday debate over this project, it seemed to us that perfection was the only thing some like Patterson were willing to settle for - and yet we suspect even that wouldn't have led to approval.

Benicians have gotten along without this project, and will, of course, survive without it. We wonder, however, what message Wednesday's action sends to others considering setting up shop in that city.

If you're less than perfect, no need to apply?

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