Mountain View’s proposed housing element update – a state-mandated process that shows cities can meet housing targets set by Sacramento – suggests that the city will be able to build out nearly 15,000 new units of housing in the next eight years. That’s nearly 4,000 more units than what the state is requiring of the city, leaving some community groups concerned that the plan is too ambitious.
Like any plan for major development, the housing element must first go through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, which requires environmental review before the plan can be approved. The Mountain View Environmental Planning Commission reviewed the housing element’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) at its Aug. 3 meeting, giving commissioners and the public alike a chance to weigh in on the findings.
The EIR evaluated the potential environmental impacts associated with building 15,000 new housing units over the next eight years.
If that maximum scenario is ultimately approved, the city is looking at a 40% increase to its overall housing stock, Commissioner Hank Dempsey pointed out at the meeting.
“That’s huge. That is absolutely huge of an impact,” Dempsey said. “I think that’s important to reinforce because we’re talking about a level of growth, and trying to guess at the impacts of a level of growth, that I don’t know that Mountain View’s ever seen.”
The housing element EIR sorted potential impacts of this growth into three categories: those which have less than significant or no impact on the environment, those that are significant impact but can be mitigated and those with significant and unavoidable impacts. EIRs look at everything from aesthetics and air quality to hazardous materials and hydrology.
The city's review found that while the housing element would have an impact on things like cultural resources, greenhouse gas emissions and utilities systems, they could be reasonably mitigated.
For instance, the draft EIR found that projects would generate greenhouse gas emissions. To mitigate that, the EIR proposes that housing element projects provide additional electric vehicle charging infrastructure and implement reduction measures for vehicle miles traveled.
The study found that the high level of growth would have an impact on air quality so significant that there is no way to fully mitigate it. But city Senior Planner Ellen Yau emphasized that individual projects will still be required to conduct a site-specific analysis to determine whether further environmental review is required.
“As a program EIR, it does not provide detailed analysis that a project-level EIR would,” Yau said. “Instead, this EIR, you should really look at it as a disclosure of potential environmental impacts that might be anticipated if the maximum scenario of the housing element update is built out at the broad scale that it’s proposed.”
During the Aug. 3 meeting, multiple commissioners said they worried about the city’s ability to meet the infrastructural needs required by 15,000 new units. Commissioners questioned whether there would be enough water to provide utilities to this many units.
City officials say they believe there is enough water for the future growth, despite concerns about dry years.
“I think there’s a lot of questions, of course, about drought,” city Civil Engineer Renee Gunn said. "... We do have (enough) supply, based off of what we have been told right now from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who runs Hetch Hetchy,” the reservoir that supplies most of Mountain View’s water.
"The drought restrictions that are in place right now are not because we don’t have the supply," she said. "They are because we have been told there is a statewide supply issue, and everybody needs to conserve."
Mountain View YIMBY, a housing advocacy group, submitted comments ahead of the meeting expressing concerns that 15,000 units is too ambitious relative to what the city can actually achieve over the next eight years, the scope of the housing element update.
“The city claims it can accommodate 14,783 units, but a more realistic estimate is 9,941,” the group wrote in its own analysis. “The primary drivers of this discrepancy are the city’s false assumption that 100% of pending projects will be built out by 2031 when historical data shows a third of pending units fail to be built in eight years.”
When asked by Commissioner Preeti Hehmeyer to respond to the group's claim, city staff disagreed.
“That is not what our analysis finds,” Advance Planning Manager Eric Anderson said. “It’s certainly the case that some projects go through multiple iterations of developers, and it’s certainly the case that sometimes projects do get hung up for a while. … That being said, looking at all of these other sites where we’ve had a developer moving forward, and they withdraw, another developer comes in almost immediately.”
Commissioners also raised concerns about the population increase associated with 15,000 new units, which the city estimates could be around 65,000 people. The draft EIR asserted that this increase would have a less than significant impact on things like public services and recreation.
“The fact that (the) Mountain View Los Altos High School District is already over capacity and is going to have more students, was not addressed,” Commission Chair William Cranston said of the draft EIR. “... That seems like an unavoidable impact.”
Past program EIRs have found that significant residential growth would not have an impact on local schools because developer fees are, at least theoretically, enough to offset the costs of building more capacity for additional students.
School district officials, on the other hand, say the cost of building additional schools and classrooms far exceeds what developer fees provide.
Cranston said that city departments like parks and recreation and public safety would also see major impacts from such rapid population growth.
“I can’t imagine going from 80,000 people to 140,000 people with the parks that we have today and nobody notices,” he said. “It doesn’t sit right with me.”
City staff will prepare responses to all the comments and concerns raised by both commissioners and members of the public, Senior Planner Yau said. The public can continue to submit written comments on the draft EIR until Sept. 5.
“We look forward to seeing all this in a response,” Cranston said.