Anne Fox, chairwoman of the Pleasanton Planning Commission, and Matt Morrison, a local payroll tax analyst and member of the Sierra Club, are co-sponsors of the "Green Belt Initiative," which has become a controversial measure that some civic leaders and organizations, including the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce, say could cost the city millions of dollars in lost tax revenue and up to 800 independent and assisted living apartments for senior citizens.
Morrison agreed that his initiative would cancel out, at least for now, the proposal by Continuing Life Communities for a private, for-profit senior care facility. He said, however, that his group changed its initiative to allow the Hendrick Automotive Group of Pleasanton to build a new auto mall at the far northeast corner of Staples Ranch. An earlier initiative filed by the Friends group would have barred that plan, too, Morrison said, but supporters, after meeting with Hendrick executives, realized that the long-time Pleasanton dealer and community supporter had nowhere else to build the mall within the city limits and was under pressure from auto manufacturers to expand.
Morrison, Fox, former Planning Commission Chairman Brian Arkin and others have been successful so far in appealing to passersby at shopping centers to sign their new initiative, which would permit Hendrick to build on Staples. To qualify the measure for the ballot box, they must gain the signatures of at least 10 percent of the registered voters in the last (2006) municipal election, or about 3,600 signatures. To make sure they have enough signatures from actual registered voters, Morrison said the group plans to obtain more than 4,000 before submitting their paperwork to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. They have six months from last Friday to file the documents.
Although they plan to place the initiative on the November 2008 ballot, when the presidential, congressional, state, local and school board elections are expected to generate a large voter turnout, they could also call a special election at anytime after their ballot measure is qualified. A special election would cost about $200,000 with city taxpayers picking up the bill.
Morrison acknowledged that the Friends group has a problem even if it obtains the necessary signatures, puts the measure on a ballot and then wins approval.
Staples Ranch is not part of Pleasanton, and the initiative would affect only property within the city limits. It would probably take a court ruling after the initiative receives voter approval to determine its impact on Alameda County, which owns the property.
"They're a bit late in trying to change the development agreement we have with the city of Pleasanton--the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU," said County Supervisor Scott Haggerty. "By November 2008, this project will be well under way."
Morrison doesn't think so, and even scoffs at worries by some opponents that the underdeveloped parcel could be annexed by Livermore if not developed entirely by the county of Alameda.
"We haven't seen any specific development plans at the city or county level and those take months, if not years, to finalize," he said. "As for Livermore, its mayor (Marshall Kamena) has already said he doesn't want the Continuing Life Communities facility on Staples, which is part of the airport protection zone for planes flying out of Livermore Airport. Besides, to annex the property, Livermore would have to amend its General Plan, get voter approval to extend its urban boundary line, win approval from LAFCO (the Alameda County Local Agency Formation Commission) and then hold the required municipal hearings before any building permits could be issued. That also could take years."
Morrison and Fox reached their decisions to do something to protect Staples Ranch independently. Fox lives in the Stoneridge Road corridor near Staples and Morrison lives just off West Las Positas, which ends at Staples and once was the main planned connector street through Pleasanton to Livermore.
Both watched as city officials entertained development proposals for Staples. In 1996, housing developer Kaufman and Broad, now KB Home, filed a plan to build 333 housing units on Staples--231 homes and 80 low-income, high-density smaller units that would back onto Interstate 580. The bid would have rezoned 45 acres of the agricultural land for residential and another 34-37 acres for a sports park that KB Home would develop and give to the city.
Livermore opposed the plan because of its airport flight path and, later, the Pleasanton City Council refused to certify the Environmental Impact Report that KB needed to go forward. The EIR cited potentially excessive noise for the future residents, both from the freeway and planes taking off from Livermore Airport.
"When I recall that study and then look at the current city-county plan to allow 600-800 senior apartments on this same site, I have a problem," Fox said. "Livermore is increasing its airport operations and now projects 380,000 flight take-offs and landings a year by 2020. This is no place to house our seniors."
Instead, Fox wants Continuing Life Communities and the city to consider relocating the planned senior facility to a 20-acre site Ponderosa Homes' Ironwood community, a site where the Pleasanton school district recently cancelled its option to purchase.
Fox, who was appointed to the Planning Commission by then-Mayor Tom Pico in 2003, said the purpose of the initiative is to stop all development on Staples Ranch, except for the auto mall, until a citizens group can develop a plan for the east side of town.
Hers is not a new idea. The City Council announced plans for an East Side Specific Plan study in 1998 after voters rescinded the council's approval of a near 300-home housing development on the Busch property, where Ponderosa later won approval to build its 98-home community. In August 1998, the East Side Study Committee was formed with 80 percent of its members from the community and 20 percent representing developers. Interviews were conducted, and although Fox's husband Richard Pugh's application wasn't accepted, they joined others in a crowded City Council chamber a few months later for the kick-off ceremonies, only to hear the council vote to cancel the study until after its had completed work on acquisition, planning and development of the Bernal property.
In 2002, IKEA approached Pleasanton about building on Staples Ranch, but moved its bid to Dublin because of uncertainty here over Stoneridge Drive and east side planning. The Swedish home furnishings store later dropped its plans to build in Dublin.
Since then, most public debate has focused on extending Stoneridge Drive. Earlier this year, the council, whose members had been opposed to the extension, switched course and approved a county-city agreement that would keep the extension in the city's new General Plan and also allow it when regional traffic conditions proved more acceptable to Pleasanton.
"This came as a result of the county and neighboring cities refusing to widen and improve Highway 84 between I-580 and I-680, which Pleasanton wants to see happen," Morrison said. "With the City Council now allowing Stoneridge Drive to be extended, it's likely we'll also see an effort to move forward to improve Highway 84."
But Morrison said he and the Sierra Club oppose widening Highway 84 because that would encourage urban sprawl.
Reflecting on this history of Staples Ranch, Morrison remembers floating down the Las Positas creek on an inner tube before Staples Ranch was split into two and developed on the west side. Las Positas Creek has now been channeled underground, but the heritage trees and special grasses and uninterrupted vistas are still there and Morrison wants to see those preserved.
"We don't want to lose that beauty and this initiative will help to ensure that we don't," Morrison said.
Staples Ranch is one of the few underdeveloped large tracts of land available to Pleasanton. According to the agreement Pleasanton signed with Alameda County, the acreage would be developed with the auto mall, senior care facility and a four-rink ice skating and hockey arena, to be built by a subsidiary of the San Jose Sharks. Recently approved on a conceptual basis by the City Council, the ice rink would take part of the sports park, whose size has dwindled from 37 acres when it was going to be developed by KB Homes, to 17 acres. There could still be lighted sports fields for baseball, football, lacrosse and tennis, although a specific plan has not been proposed.
It's the lack of a long-range, citizen-prepared development plan that has provoked Fox, Morrison and others to demand that all development plans for Staples Ranch, again except for the auto mall, be stopped. They want the council to re-commit to a citizens' study group for the east side and also want the bulk of Staples preserved for community activities, much as the council and voters have stipulated for the Bernal property.
The known history of Staples Ranch goes back to the mid-1800s when President Lincoln signed a presidential decree granting the land to Delores Pacheco. Over the years, as California became a state and the cities of Livermore and Pleasanton were organized, Staples Ranch shrunk as roads, homes and the Livermore Airport were developed.
After World War II, Alameda County acquired Staples Ranch as a site for its "rehabilitation center," which is now the county jail in Dublin. Pleasanton tried to annex the land in 2001, but had no development plan or funds to buy the land from Alameda County, where the acreage is now priced at $1 million an acre.
How to acquire Staples from the county is another unanswered question for the Friends of Pleasanton group if their initiative wins at the ballot box.
Supporters recall that the city of Pleasanton asked voters to approve a $50 million bond issue to buy a part of the Bernal property in 2000, a bond issue that required a two-third majority vote in favor for approval. It lost by less than two percentage points.
"There's no reason we couldn't seek that approval again to acquire Staples Ranch," Morrison said. "After all, everyone is interested in doing what is best for Pleasanton, whether they support our initiative or not. We may have different views on how things should be done, but in the end we have the same objectives in mind: a better quality of life for out community.
For more information, visit the Friends of Pleasanton Web site at www.friendsofpleasanton.org. For opposing views, visit the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce's Web site at www.pleasanton.org/pleasantonfirst.htm. A story about the launching of a drive against Friends of Pleasanton was published in the June 15 edition.