Benicia's Seeno project stays alive -- for now
By Jessica A. York - MediaNews staff
Contra Conta Times

December 3, 2008

BENICIA The Benicia City Council has voted to breathe new life into a controversial development that only last month appeared to have been administered its last rites.

Tuesday night's dramatic turnaround sets in motion a new round of facilitated talks before the council will next consider the issue Feb. 3. The talks, likely to be set as a public workshop, will help provide the city a specific set of controls over the business park, set for undeveloped northeast Benicia property.

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said Tuesday night she would have preferred a clean break and rejection of the project altogether, but allowed that detailed community review might provide the city some certainty.

Last month, the council voted 4-1 to send the project back to the drawing board. Tuesday's decision does not change that vote, yet, city Attorney Heather McLaughlin said.

The 528-acre business-commercial project could win approval after more than three years of government and political wrangling if the developer and council majority support proposed development agreements.

Tuesday night's 4-1 vote came after a stream of one-time project opponents appeared before the council and endorsed giving developer Albert Seeno III another try. In previous meetings, dozens of speakers had lined up against the plan, with Seeno's supporters mostly in the background.

Tuesday night, only two residents out of fewer than 20 speakers rose in strict opposition to the latest move.

Resident Steve Goetz, a member of the group Benicia First! that has vocally opposed the project's current incarnation, announced he is ready to support moving the project forward.

"There is truly a risk here," Goetz said. "I think it's a risk worth taking."

The vote was the culmination of a series of discussions held by Councilman Mike Ioakimedes, first with Seeno and later with Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and members of the Benicia Board of Education. Patterson and the school board had been outspoken foes of the Seeno project in its current form.

But Ioakimedes apparently persuaded opponents, through a series of community meetings during the past week, that the city would be able to enforce new concessions by Seeno, and have more control over the ambitious project than the developer had been willing to allow previously.

Ioakimedes had said he would be unwilling to go to bat for the company without significant new concessions made upfront.

He said before the meeting that he was surprised when Seeno approached him two weeks ago, but conceded that some watching the development issue consider him the five-member council's swing vote on this issue.

Ioakimedes voted with the 3-2 vote majority in first refusing to approve the final project design and its environmental study addendum in October, citing his concern about sacrificing public health for profit. Then again last month he sided with the majority, in 3-2 and 4-1 votes respectively, to first reject the project's environmental report and the whole project.

Voting against Seeno on Tuesday night was Councilman Tom Campbell, who repeatedly accused the developer of "brinkmanship" in his protracted dealings with the city.

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