May 9 2012

City Council Rescinds Approval of Blair Park Project While Leaving EIR As Is

On May 7, the Piedmont City Council unanimously voted to rescind its approval of the Piedmont Recreational Facilities Organization (PRFO) project to develop Blair Park into a youth sports fields complex.  Residents speaking at the hearing from a variety of Piedmont neighborhoods raised questions regarding the previous approval process, need for play fields, the future of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and the delay in public disclosure of billing disputes with the PRFO.

Rob Hendrickson admonished the Council for the closed session approval of a PRFO agreement.  He noted there were outstanding bills of approximately $300,000 at the time of the December 5, 2011 project approval agreement and a 6 month delay before the problems with the PRFO agreement were made public.  Having served on the Piedmont League of Women Voters Task Force investigating the costly $2. 3 million, undergrounding loss, Hendrickson compared the two large projects and found similar problems.  He advocated a change in policy, more transparency, and earlier public information on cost overruns.

Resident Sinan Sabuncuoglo noted that despite the “dream team” proposing the project, trust was not present.  All funding was to have been provided by PRFO.  He was concerned about City staff allowing influential members of the community to pressure the decision making and act unchecked.  He urged the Council to get to the bottom of the costly expenditure of tax dollars on the project.

Neil Teixeira, a resident of Piedmont for 57 years, was critical of City Administrator Geoff Grote for hiring counsel to defend the environmental workTeixeira advocated de-certification of the EIR documents, noting that leaving the EIR approval on record would send the wrong signal to Piedmonters. 

George Childs, a steadfast participant at City Council meetings, stated it was imperative that Blair Park  continue as a passive use.  He urged that the EIR be de-certified. Otherwise, he said, in a few months proponents could come back with a revised plan.  Many in the audience applauded his statements.  Council Member Bob McBain, perhaps unaware his voice would be picked up on the microphones, stated, “It doesn’t take much to get applause.”

Rick Schiller pointed out how the large total amount of money spent by the City on the project over time added up to more than $800,000.  He advocated the Council reverse all prior resolutions approving the EIR.

Other speakers emphasized the growing demand and interest in additional youth play fields.  Eric Havian, an attorney and PRFO member, spoke angrily about the “vast amount” of public misinformation.  He stated that the process had involved complete and open discourse.  He blamed the lawsuit from Friends of Moraga Canyon (FOMC) for the end to public discourse, as proponents were forced to strategize out of public view.  He warned that further bills would be coming from the opponents.  Havian finished his statement to the Council by commenting with bitterness on the unacceptability of filing a lawsuit against the city where you live.

Mark Menke, incoming President of PRFO, in a more conciliatory tone, stated that the need for field space still existed, and PRFO was still interested in the development of field space for Piedmont youth.

Council Discussion –

City Attorney Tom Curry explained to the Council his recommendation to rescind the project approval.  His recommendation was based on the failure of the “full funding” financial arrangement with PRFO, leading to their withdrawal of the project.  Rescinding approval represented “completing the circle,” since  there was no reason to have the Council approval stand merely to await a court decision.  He stated that neither Oakland nor FOMC attorneys had asked that the EIR be de-certified. Curry noted that when or if  another project is proposed for the Moraga Canyon location, the approved EIR adequacy could then be challenged by objectors.

Council Member Bob McBain indicated he had conversations with residents who were not satisfied with rescinding the project.  He asked Grote to clarify when the City realized that PRFO was disputing the billings.  Grote indicated it was not until mid-January 2012 and that the Council had no knowledge of the PRFO/City disagreemenwhen they approved the project on December 5, 2011.  Grote stated the costs were ongoing, as this was the nature of litigation disputes.  McBain thanked proponents and repeated the need for field space for boys and girls.

Council Member Garrett Keating asked Curry about the legal costs incurred and wanted to know if it represented work with PRFO and/or the site lease.  Curry confirmed it was both.  Keating expressed his awareness of the need for field space, but presumed ending the project would make the “silent majority” of Piedmont residents happy.  He noted the process of approval had been problematic. Rather than more tax money going into Blair Park, he stated there were other viable projects.

Vice Mayor Margaret Fujioka was visibly disheartened by the need to rescind the project, mentioning that it is difficult to move projects forward as neighbors always “weigh in.”  The litigation expense resulted in everyone being out of money.  She felt it had been a fair and open process.

Council Member Jeff Weiler commended PRFO for putting their money toward finding field space for Piedmont youth.  In response to citizen requests to de-certify the EIR, Weiler stated he would follow counsel advice and allow it to remain certified.  He said, “Blair Park is dead.”  He specifically disagreed with a statement that there was a two-tiered form of government in Piedmont noting that the Council members are all unpaid volunteers. He said he believed they had used their best judgment throughout the process and on the EIR.

Mayor John Chiang regretted having to rescind approval of the project and was sorry it was not going forward.  He touted successful public-private partnerships as important to Piedmont and hoped they would continue in the future.  He mentioned the parks, the Tea House, and the Excedra as successful projects.  Steve Ellis, Clarence Mumuyac, and PRFO were praised and thanked for contributing more than $1 million to develop the Blair Park project.

Grote explained, “the City couldn’t change the formula” for the City’s contractual agreement with PRFO, and said there are “ongoing discussions” with PRFO on remaining outstanding bills.  The total amount of money owed to the City by PRFO would not be known until litigation was complete and outstanding obligations for cost were totaled.

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