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OP-ED: What it takes to build a village
January 25, 2013, 05:00 AM By Ron Collins

As a member of the San Carlos City Council, it is my responsibility to participate in decisions on the merits of a project near the San Carlos Caltrain depot known as the San Carlos Transit Village. This mixed-use residential and commercial project has been planned since the late 1990s on a portion of vacant land owned by SamTrans and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board along El Camino Real in the Holly Street area in San Carlos. The San Carlos Transit Village proposal would result in the development of multi-family rental housing units, offices, retail space, underground and street parking, new paving treatments, enhanced landscaping and a pedestrian plaza. The land has been pre-zoned for this use for many years.

Once built, this will be the second largest development in San Carlos' history, so it is important that we get it right. The process of reviewing such a project is full of complexities, confusion and uncertainty for many in our community. As a relative newcomer to the council, I have many questions about the project, and I frequently receive questions and comments from residents. Many of the questions I have received are about understanding the review process and what the council can and cannot do, and what challenges will be addressed as we decide the future of this part of town. In California, there are a number of statutory guidelines that govern the process of review for this type of project.

CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, is a state statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of a project and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible. Every development project which requires a discretionary governmental approval will require at least some environmental review pursuant to CEQA, unless an exemption applies.

The EIR is a report of, as its name implies, the impact of a particular project on its surrounding environment. Each public agency in California (in our case, the city of San Carlos) that has jurisdiction over a project must, according to CEQA, certify that an EIR has been prepared and has evaluated all impacts a project will have on air, soil, water, traffic, etc. as a result of its construction. The EIR does not indicate if a project should or should not be built. It does not pass judgment on the cultural or economic impact of a project, or even if it is a good fit for the community. In essence, the final EIR, once certified, and no matter how technically accurate it may be, does not determine whether a project will be built. That is the job of the agency. In other words, it is the job of the city of San Carlos to decide if the project gets built.

It is also the job of the City Council, using the EIR as a guide, to communicate to the project developer what specific changes, improvements, alterations or reductions it wants to see to approve the actual project. These changes are the result of many hours of input from various entities that include city staff, members of the public and other interest groups. We value this input, as we feel it eventually makes for a better project, even if it takes a little longer than might usually be expected.

Large projects, such as the Transit Village, require a substantial review process so that the City Council and the community can hear from stakeholders, review expert analysis and receive comments from any interested party in rendering a responsible decision that takes into consideration how the Transit Village project will impact our city and its residents for years to come.

Ron Collins is a member of the San Carlos City Council.

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