The controversial Garaventa Hills Subdivision was approved by a unanimous vote of the Livermore City Council at the April 22 meeting.
The 32-acre site, located between Laughlin and Vasco Road, represents the last undeveloped parcel of the Maralisa development plan begun in the early 1990s. Lafferty Communities submitted the development plan.
In the mid-1990s, development was approved around the site, including a school, a park and the wetland reserve parcel. Build-out would have added 76 housing units. Plans have been submitted multiple times since 2000, and revised to maintain as much of the original landforms as possible. Steve Stewart, Planning Manager, told the council, the plan under consideration responds to comments and recommendations from many, including the Save the Hill group, neighbors, federal and state resource agencies, LARPD, city council and staff.
In 2015, the council directed the applicant to reduce some of the grading, and change the bridge to a 20-foot-wide emergency vehicle access (EVA) with walking and bicycle access starting at the Hawk Street extension, with connection to the existing trail network. The number of units was lowered to 44 in total, including 6 duets, with the number of actual buildings numbering 41. The height of the houses was decreased. Grading was moved down the hill to preserve views.
Rebecca Auld, representing city consultant Lamphier-Gregory, reviewed the analysis completed under the California Environmental Quality Act. The 21 significant impacts identified were able to be reduced to a level below the significance threshold through the implementation of mitigation measures. Numerous biological surveys and studies revealed no sensitive species exist on the project site.
To Vice Mayor Bob Carling’s questions about changes in the development proposal that affect the environment, Auld and City Manager Marc Roberts replied that the changes made for this presentation introduced environmentally superior alternatives. Councilmember Trish Munro asked how floods, fires and other disasters would be handled. Stewart noted that the project was out of the flood zone. If the culvert at Laughlin Road were blocked, the EVA access bridge would be available. The Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department reviewed the fire safety concerns and passed the plan.
Public comments from speakers began with John Satori asking which members on the council had walked the project or the trails to get a better visual than the renderings presented. He stated, “Project will be a blight for people using that trail.”
Marnie Steele speaking for Cyndi Andres, founding member of the Save the Hill group, noted there should be two full accesses to this development for safety concerns, not just the one at Bear Creek. This means a two-lane unrestricted road on Hawk,
Ken Brook was concerned with the one-way in and one-way out road for commercial traffic. He believed the proposed EVA bridge would not be used by first responders for an emergency. They would go around to Bear Creek Road.
Karen Crosley stated that as far back as the seventies, Livermore has not built on hills. “You want to call these knolls, but they are hills. What needs to be done for the city to follow its own rules?”
Ted Berlynn Crosley noted that the housing has never complied with the general plan. The hills are part of our ecosystem.
Mary Perna related that the proposed development may be in violation because it is one of the stepping stones to Brushy Peak, a sacred site for the Ohlone and other tribes.
Mary Anne Rozsa, representing the sellers, Sharan and Karen Keli, mentioned that the plan has been through numerous reviews. The project conforms to the current zoning at low residential. The EIR report states that there are no significant impacts to the environment; the lot sizes and styles of the homes are consistent with the nearby homes.
Graham Talaber noted that the alkalai sink area was inhabited with vole tiger salamanders, who spend their time underground, only moving on rainy nights to mate. This means that environmentalists will not be able to see them. This habitat is also the only place the Livermore Tarplant, western spadefoot and red legged frogs can be found. He concluded that by law, this mitigated property can never be developed due to the endangered species act.
Andrew Barker urged approval of the development. He stated that the 44 families who would be living in the homes would not disappear if the housing were not built. Those families will be commuting, causing more environmental harm than the development.
Michelle Mitchell wondered if the city could rezone the property as open space. Would the city work with groups such as Save the Hill, to secure funding from the Altamont Open Space Committee and partner with the local park district to preserve this area?
Louann Tung, representing Friends of the Arroyos and Center for Biological Diversity, discussed putting the two-story homes at the back of the project for aesthetic reasons. She also mentioned that neighbors in her area close to the open space have had their fire insurance canceled. This area is a wind tunnel. With grasses, trees and houses in that area, new residents may also have problems buying fire insurance.
Bianca Covarella from Save the Hill stated that there were funds available to buy this open space. The general plan specifically requires no building on slopes, hills or knolls. Trees will bring raptors to poach on existing burrowing owls. Has there been recent testing and core drilling for seismic activities?
Another Save the Hill representative, Cindy Angers, thanked the council members and city staff for working with Save the Hill for seven years. The group would really like to buy the hill and keep it as open space forever.
Councilmember Bob Coomber asked if the general plan were really being violated.
Stewart replied that the property was designated as residential in 1976, 1988, and 2003, so it has been residential for a number of years. The goals, objectives and policies have been considered in their entirety. Development has been subordinated to the natural land forms; units have been clustered down off the hills.
Councilmember Trish Munro turned again to the fires, trees, wind-tunnel, and flood concerns. How does this hill differ from the other hills? What about violation of native American territory? Will the mitigation site ever be developed?
Stewart stated that building codes, as well as fire and safety codes, minimized concerns. Fire hydrant spacing, hose pulling distances and evacuation access have been considered. The homes will be located above the flood plain. There is a hill in a nearby location covered with homes. Because the site is sufficiently south of Brushy Peak, the belief of native Americans that the site is sacred should not be an issue; the land is separate from the Brushy Peak holding. Tribes view the whole valley as sacred in many places. The mitigation site is privately held. There are no conservation easements that would protect the land in perpetuity. The project area is heavily impacted by trespassing BMX bikers and other vehicles. Ongoing damage is significant. Part of the process would involve placing a permanent conservation mitigation on the property.
Roberts added that trespassing has been a major problem on the site, especially by people with their animals. Fencing the area and managing it in an ongoing manner would be a way to deal with the issue.
Carling interjected that he has noticed the hills being destroyed by bicycles and other people trespassing on the land. Carling asked about the road going through the wetlands. Roberts replied that putting a road through the wetlands from Vasco to the site would cause a significant environmental impact. Carling reminded staff that there was concern that the fire department would only be able to go through Bear Creek Road. Could they get fire trucks in through Hawk if people were trying to escape via the EVA out of the area? Spence replied there was enough space.
Councilmember Bob Woerner asked, “Why can’t we just make this go away by buying it?”
Assistant City Attorney Catrina Fobian replied that the council has to evaluate each project set before them. The council should not look at the possibility of what the city could do with the property, since the city is currently not under contract to purchase the property.
Woerner said that he believed that once the city has a general plan, and a project was submitted consistent with that set of rules, the city can’t change the rules since that would provide a basis for liability. That doesn’t preclude the community from purchasing the property. Fobian agreed.
Mayor John Marchand reminded the audience that this area has been zoned for housing since 1976, and has not been designated open space since that time. The site is not currently a preserve, as another speaker stated. It is private property. People have been allowed access to the site, but they are trespassing. If the plan, as presented, were to go through, there would be ongoing legal access to the site and funds to maintain the site.
Coomber remembered when the original Miralisa project was first proposed, “We were sweating about it back then, too."