Lafayette commission OK disputed apartment project

LAFAYETTE — Two years ago, NIMBY forces convinced Lafayette
voters to defeat a plan — worked out between the city and
developer — that would have built 44 houses on a hotly contested
22-acre hillside site.

Instead, now the city stands to gain 315 apartments on the site
— as was originally proposed nine years ago. The Lafayette
Planning Commission approved the controversial Terraces of
Lafayette project Wednesday morning by a 5-2 vote in a meeting that
lasted more than seven hours.

This time, the commission had to consider the state’s Housing
Accountability Act, which essentially takes the power of local
control out of the hands of cities and prioritizes affordable
housing projects like the Terraces because of the state’s housing
crisis.

Twenty percent — or 63 units — of the Terrace’s 315
apartments are classified as affordable housing.

“I think that for a lot of the people who were fighting
against homes at Deer Hill, they have a potential to really regret
that fight for what it’s apparently going to turn into,”
Commissioner Stephen LaBonge said.

Commissioner Karen Maggio said she was “completely in support
of the 44 homes,” because she thought that plan was more in line
with the city’s general plan.

“I think that many of them (voters against Measure L) felt
that voting against that particular measure would prevent us from
developing that hillside, which I think was made very clear at the
time that if that project was denied, that we would come back to
the 315 apartments as promised — and here we are.”

In June 2018, voters, led by the grassroots Save Lafayette
group, defeated a proposal to build the 44 houses, called Measure
L. Just a few days later, developer O’Brien Homes, of Menlo Park,
resubmitted its initial plan for 315 apartments.

Commission Chair Kristina Sturm voted for the Terraces, as did
Commissioners Gary Huisingh, Maggio, Greg Mason and Anna Radonich.
Vice Chair Farschad Farzan and Commissioner LaBonge cast “no”
votes.

An appeal of the decision to the City Council is expected.

The commissioners said they were concerned with what the
Terraces might do to an already crowded traffic area and emergency
evacuation traffic jams like during last October’s wildfires in
the area. But they ultimately agreed they couldn’t deny the
project as specified by the state’s Housing Accountability Act
(HAA).

In addition, under the new state housing laws, Lafayette could
be liable for at least $15.75 million in expected legal costs if it
denied the project and lost in court, according to the
developer’s attorney, Bryan Wenter.

“This is probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve
had to make as a planning commissioner,” said Commissioner Karen
Maggio.

Maggio said she was now focused on making the Terraces “the
best project it can be,” with recommended mitigation measures
addressing safety and other issues.

“It’s not a difficult decision, it’s an extraordinarily
difficult decision,” Commissioner Farzan said.

“The 20 percent to me is the bare minimum to try to handcuff
the decision-making,” he said, noting the percentage of the 315
apartments set aside for affordable housing.

A recent additional staff report examined the apartments’
effect on traffic and emergency evacuation, such as during a
wildfire.The report concluded there would be no significant
impact.

About 35 people read statements at Tuesday night’s meeting,
speaking about the need for affordable housing, diversity in the
city, traffic, wildfire hazards, as well as noise and potential air
pollution during construction.

Jeremy Levine, one of the founders of a new grassroots group
called Inclusive Lafayette, spoke in support of the project.

“Please listen to the expensive private consultants repeatedly
hired by the city over the past decade when they say there is no
reason to deny this project,†said Levine, who noted that
Inclusive Lafayette has already attracted 300 members since it was
founded two weeks ago. “Please listen to Contra Costa County’s
Sheriff’s Office and the county fire protection district, who
both say there is no significant public safety concern for this
project. And please listen to the city’s own staff and legal
counsel when they suggest approving this project. Let’s put this
costly, divisive conversation behind us and move forward creating
an inclusive community.â€

Eliot Hudson, another Lafayette resident, urged the commission
to reject the Terraces.

“This project is so massive, so intrusive in its location that
you are in reality determining what Lafayette will look like
forevermore,†Hudson said.

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After the decision, Wenter released a statement.

“We are grateful the planning commission approved the Terraces
last night,†he said in an email Wednesday. “After nine long
years and every form of legal and political challenge, the
commission recognized that the Housing Accountability Act required
approval of the Terraces. The Terraces will add much-needed
apartment housing to the community.â€

Michael Griffiths, of Save Lafayette, urged that the Terraces be
denied because of what he said were traffic, air pollution and
wildfire problems.

“The planning commission was fed erroneous information and
pressured to make a decision last night, so the 5-2 result was
inevitable,†he said in an email after the vote.

The Terraces apartment project dates back to March 2011. It has
been the subject of 20 public hearings and a lawsuit, and a state
court ruling as well as the Measure L referendum.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Lafayette commission OK disputed apartment project