The Vanguard has learned that the hearing on the Sterling Apartments at the Davis Senior Citizen Commission, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, turned contentious when Chair Evelyn Mendez and city staff attempted to limit the scope of the public discussion to the Affordable Housing component of the project.
Sterling Apartments is a proposed 244-unit development on Fifth Street at the site of the former FamiliesFirst treatment facility that was the subject of a major investigation and was permanently closed as of September 2013.
This project seeks to demolish the existing buildings on just over five acres, that would be developed into a four- and five-story, 203-unit student housing project, along with a four-story, 41-unit affordable housing project on the remaining .84 acres of the site.
The student site would include 727 beds, along with 545 parking spaces.
According to city staff, there were between 50 and 60 people in attendance at the meeting, primarily from Rancho Yolo.
Mike Webb, the city’s director of Community Development and Sustainability, told the Vanguard, “Unfortunately, there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding by neighbors that this was an appropriate venue to expect that a decision would be rendered on the proposal when the Senior Commission charge in reviewing such a proposal is not to render a decision on the entirety of the proposal – that is the role of the Planning Commission and City Council.”
He continued, “As with most commissions the role here is advisory and focused on the charge and purview of the commission. The recommendation in the staff report clearly spelled out the purview of this agenda item and the input staff desired to solicit from the commission.”
The root of the problem was that the meeting itself was noticed and agendized as far broader than staff probably intended: “The purpose of the meeting is to present the project to the Senior Commission for their input on the affordable housing proposal as well as general senior issues related to the project.”
The portion of that statement, “as well as general senior issues related to the project,” would have seemed to have opened the door to general comment.
Moreover, as Mike Webb said, “The number of public commenters was not anticipated by staff or the commission.” From the perspective of city staff, “Unfortunately, some of the discourse of the public comment was less than courteous at times and the meeting was overwhelmed.”
As Don Sherman, a resident of Rancho Yolo who has been a critic of the project put it, “We had received no notice that discussion would be limited to the Affordable Housing component, but it soon became apparent that (City Staff and the Commission Chair) had planned exactly that.”
According to Don Sherman’s account, when residents began to register more general complaints, specifically about the density of the project, Ms. Mendez, the chair, attempted to shut down the discussion.
Mr. Sherman told the Vanguard, “Mendez scolded the citizen/speaker, then all of us, for not staying on topic, announcing to our surprise that we were not supposed to talk about anything except affordable housing. People were standing up, asking for recognition, complaining loudly. Others were questioning one another. There was a lot of murmuring behind the shouting.”
As Don Sherman described it, Ms. Mendez began to “shout” “louder and louder” for the attendees to “quiet down” and “take it easy.” He said that several of the attendees approached the dais, suggesting to the chair to allow people to speak who wanted to speak.
He said, “As Ms. Mendez was screaming, “shut up and sit down,” all but maybe ten or so of the roomful behind me got up and noisily strode out through the rear doors.”
He said, “The meeting resumed, I was one of a handful who stayed, because I wanted to know what came next, and would have welcomed being recognized to speak, even if just the Commission and the City officials would have heard me.”
At this point, Danielle Foster and Eric Lee spoke, explaining to the Commissioners that “they were authorized by City Council to discuss only the affordable housing component of the project.”
Again, Mike Webb clarified to the Vanguard that the Senior Commission does not have the purview to render a decision on the entirety of the project – that is the role of the Planning Commission and City Council. “As with most commissions the role here is advisory and focused on the charge and purview of the commission. The recommendation in the staff report clearly spelled out the purview of this agenda item and the input staff desired to solicit from the commission.”
The staff recommendation going into the meeting was, “Staff is providing information on the proposed Sterling Fifth Street Apartments project for informational purposes to solicit comments from the Commission regarding project consistency with the ‘Guidelines for Housing That Serves Seniors and Persons With Disabilities.’”
“The project will be reviewed and formal action will be taken at public hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council on meeting dates to be determined,” the recommendation read.
Mike Webb added that “the agenda item will be rescheduled for a future date and at a venue that can better accommodate the number of commenters and afford the opportunity for the commission to complete their deliberations.”
Elaine Roberts Musser had been a long-time member and Chair of the Senior Commission. On Thursday, she was in attendance only as a member of the public.
She noted that there was a group from Rancho Yolo who were “vehemently against the Sterling Apt. proposal. It was pretty intense, but it was eventually resolved amicably.”
From her perspective, “There was some confusion about whether the Senior Citizens Commission could only weigh in on the affordable housing part of the project, or if they could weigh in on its potential impacts to seniors. The Senior Citizens Commission resolved the issue by determining to weigh in on the potential impact of the project on seniors at its next meeting.”
On the issue at hand, she said, “The Senior Citizens Commission decided the affordable housing portion, while meeting Senior Housing Guideline requirements, was not suitable for senior housing.”
There are two clear issues that have arisen by those concerned about the Sterling Apartments. The first is the density of the project, which would include about 727 beds on the student site.
The second is an issue that is more difficult to address, which is that Rancho Yolo residents do not have control over the land on which their homes rest. While there are safeguards in place to protect mobile home residents, several people have told the Vanguard that the city could pass an ordinance that would provide them with far greater levels of protection.
—David M. Greenwald reporting