Dec 1 2011

Opinion: Candidate’s Stance on Blair Park

An Open Letter from Candidate Tim Rood Regarding His Position on Blair Park –

A recent letter to the Piedmont Post  inaccurately characterized my position regarding the proposed sports complex at Blair Park. I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

As a longtime soccer parent (as well as baseball and softball) I am completely sympathetic to the desire for additional field space in town and understand that the lease for the fields currently used at Alameda Point expires next year. I know that for many Piedmonters, getting Blair Park built is the most important issue in their minds as they consider the Council candidates. There are many other Piedmonters for whom stopping Blair Park from happening at all is the most important issue on their minds. Personally, I am most focused on fiscally responsible government and an open and transparent public process, and I believe Blair Park touches on both of these issues.

The City has spent more than it took in for four of the past five years, without setting any funds aside for the maintenance of our City buildings and facilities, and has drawn down our reserves by half – over $7 million – in the past four years, despite having stable revenues during the economic downturn. Adding to our fiscal problems, the Council also decided to take over the operation of the City’s pools this year from the Piedmont Swim Club (of which  I was board president) , which entails a new annual cost to the taxpayers of about $400,000 per year to subsidize their operation, which had been fully paid by the Swim Club for the previous 47 years.

The Municipal Tax Review Committee’s “base case” projections of current trends show that the current path leads to a $2.2 million deficit and a $3.8 million shortfall in essential reserves within four years – even if the voters authorize renewal of the parcel tax.  To protect our essential public services, I am focused on taking concrete action to rein in City spending and ensuring that the Council does not make additional commitments involving City funding or staff time for new programs or projects without a full understanding of the costs and potential liabilities, and full funding in place. I’ve detailed my positions on fiscal issues on the “Issues” page of my website, I understand that Blair Park is to be privately funded and maintained. To be confident that Piedmont’s taxpayers will not incur costs or liability from the construction, operation or maintenance of the proposed sports complex and associated changes to Moraga Avenue, the public will need to see the agreements between PRFO and the City that ensure this. I believe that drafts of these agreements should be made public prior to their adoption.

The City Administrator has publicly said the City does not have funds for the construction or maintenance of new sports or recreation facilities and that such facilities need to be privately funded, but he and the City Attorney have also signed an agreement with PRFO committing the City to covering the cost of staff and city attorney time connected with the  approval and environmental review process of the Blair Park proposal. There was no Council resolution authorizing this commitment of City resources, but because the City Administrator is overseen by the Council, I can only assume that this agreement was made with the approval of a majority of the Council – which to my mind should have been a publicly noticed agenda item and reported vote, even if discussed in closed session.

The Blair Park proposal coming before the Council on Dec. 5 is described as “final” by the proponents, but it still has unresolved traffic and pedestrian safety issues, on which the Council requested additional information back in March. In my professional opinion as a city planner, the major changes in the project since the original EIR was certified clearly call for a Supplemental EIR, which would require public circulation and notification to the agencies that raised concerns about the original EIR, rather than a CEQA addendum, which would not. I’ve posted on Piedmont Patch some technical comments about FHWA guidance regarding design criteria for mini-roundabouts that should be addressed in the environmental review.

According to the CEQA guidelines, an addendum would only be appropriate when the project’s impacts are the same or less than the original project. I am hopeful that this additional information will be provided to the Council and the public prior to any further approvals of the project.

The decision of what level of CEQA review is appropriate is properly a technical and legal one that should be made by City staff and the City attorney in consultation with the environmental review consultant, rather than a political decision to be made by the Council. The purpose of thorough CEQA review is not to delay the project but rather to comply with state law, allow affected parties the opportunity to review and comment on the documentation and thereby minimize the risk of liability to all parties concerned.

Personally, if I were on the Council, I would want to review this information in detail and be satisfied of its completeness and adequacy before I could vote to approve the project. The risk of liability to the city and the donors and proponents from an inadequate environmental review process is simply too great.

Even though it’s a privately funded project, Blair Park is happening on public land and involves changes to public streets.  Because the project is so controversial, an open, respectful and inclusive public process will be critical in bringing this issue to a successful conclusion for all parties. Personally, I believe that much of the controversy could have been avoided had the City chosen to involve the entire community  from the outset in an open forum/town hall discussion of community goals for field space and for Moraga Canyon/Coaches’ Field, done an independent and objective evaluation of multiple design alternatives to accommodate the desired additional field space, and documented that evaluation process professionally and transparently.

Given where we are now, with a clear Council majority in favor of moving the current proposal forward, regardless of who wins the election, I would like to see the City outline a clear, public sequence of decision points so that the remaining steps in public review, environmental review and approval process are completely transparent. I think this approach, combined with a thorough and professional environmental review, will best help to minimize the risk of liability to the City and best serve the community as a whole, including the proponents and donors. Litigation is not a good use of anyone’s time, energy or money, and the best way to avoid it is through a transparent and professional process.

 (This article expresses the personal opinions of the author.  All statements made are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.)

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