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March 20, 2007 > Council rejects zoning variance

Council rejects zoning variance

By Steve Warga

Critics of the Milpitas City Council are fond of dwelling on the perception of a permanent divide in the vote, pitting Mayor Jose Estevez and Councilmember Althea Polanski against Vice Mayor Bob Livengood, Councilmember Armando Gomez, and Councilmember Debbie Giordano. That notion was turned on its head Tuesday evening, March 6, when Giordano's fellow councilmembers ganged-up to defeat a proposed Parktown zoning variance that would have encompassed a stretch of 13 duplexes, including Giordano's recently purchased duplex at 887 S. Park Victoria Drive.

Was Giordano using her influential position for personal gain? Did recently-appointed City Manager Tom Williams attempt to sneak a zoning change past city council, perhaps illegally? Would property values suddenly plummet in the immediate vicinity of the proposed Mixed Use (MXD-S) rezoning?

No, no and no; yet every one of these accusations and quite a few more were hurled at Williams and Giordano by councilmembers and by members of a vocal and, at times, very emotional crowd of residents jamming council chambers to express their opinion on the proposal. Giordano did recuse herself from deliberations, but even sitting in the lobby of City Hall well away from chambers would not have been far enough to escape the often very personal vitriol.

There was never any doubt how council would vote on the item, as Polanski and then, Estevez, wasted no time ambushing Williams and Senior Planner Cindy Maxwell. Even so, the entire affair ran well over four hours before the official, and unanimous, denial of the proposal.

Normally, Estevez will hold his thoughts until the other councilmembers have their say, but on March 6. Polanski set the tone by sharply criticizing Williams for not informing council before putting the City of Milpitas on Giordano's original application and then expanding the coverage of the proposed change. Estevez jumped in with sarcastic, taunting questions along the same line of thought. But first, he announced a curious change from normal public hearing protocol.

Noting that councilmembers had received "a couple of lengthy emails" on this matter, the mayor concluded that this justified an expansion of the time limit for public comment. Estevez never explained why long emails equated to longer turns at the podium, but he added two more minutes to the usual three minute limit. Given that City Clerk Mary Lavelle had collected 35 speaker request cards at that point, the mayor's generous extension of time amounted to allowing well over an additional hour to what was already shaping up to be a marathon meeting. As it turned out, some 46 individuals took a turn at the microphone. Thankfully, not all of them used the full five minutes Estevez allowed.

The mayor also accommodated extensive cheering and booing from the crowd; so much so that Williams' observations and defense of his thinking were simply drowned out by the crowd.

Had councilmembers or the crowd been courteous enough to listen, they would have heard Williams explain that the zoning request was handled strictly by the book; that the city's participation was not unusual or unprecedented; that the Planning Commission had approved the change on a 5-1 vote; and that the conversion from Residential (R2-S) zoning to MXD-S would not precipitate the ruin of this stretch of a main city arterial. Had they listened, they would have heard Williams explain that MXD zoning permits flexibility for planners, home owners and business owners, a fact that almost always means an increase in property values. Williams' decision to join Giordano's application was simply good planning, nothing more.

Giordano first sought the variance so she could convert one side of her duplex into an office for her real estate brokerage. Although she could file again, without the city's participation, she has changed her plans entirely. Within days of the council's decision, she encountered some unexpected good fortune and she now needs more space than the duplex-office would have afforded. "As it turned out, the decision against me actually worked in my favor. It's funny how that happens sometimes," she commented.

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