Vallco’s fate will hinge on re­count

The Mercury News Weekend - - LOCAL NEWS - By Thy Vo [email protected]­yare­anews­group.com

CU­PER­TINO » A 45-vote mar­gin be­tween two Cu­per­tino City Coun­cil can­di­dates on op­po­site sides of the con­tro­ver­sial Vallco Shop­ping Mall re­de­vel­op­ment has trig­gered an au­to­matic re­count that could take weeks, put­ting the po­lit­i­cal makeup of the coun­cil in the bal­ance.

If elec­tion re­sults hold, the coun­cil ma­jor­ity could shift from one with a de­vel­op­ment tilt to one that op­poses dense hous­ing projects such as the mixed-use de­vel­op­ment planned for Vallco, a de­funct shop­ping cen­ter that de­vel­oper Sand Hill Prop­erty has tagged for at least 2,402 hous­ing units, half which would be af­ford­able.

The Santa Clara County Regis­trar of Vot­ers’ fi­nal tally Thurs­day of the Nov. 6 elec­tion showed Jon Robert Wil­ley with 7,400 votes and Coun­cil­woman Savita Vaid­hyanathan with 7,355 votes.

And although it could take sev­eral weeks be­fore the re­count is com­plete, the city planned to move on by swear­ing in Wil­ley and two other can­di­dates op­posed to the Vallco project — in­cum­bent Mayor Darcy Paul and school board mem­ber Liang Fang Chao — on Thurs­day evening.

“The res­i­dents have clearly sent a strong sig­nal that they want the coun­cil to rep­re­sent the res­i­dents with sen­si­ble growth,” Wil­ley said in a phone in­ter­view.

Wil­ley and Chao are both as­so­ci­ated with a res­i­dent group called Bet­ter Cu­per­tino, which has op­posed the Vallco de­vel­op­ment as an out­sized, too- dense de­vel­op­ment that would ex­ac­er­bate traf­fic prob­lems, re­duce qual­ity of life for res­i­dents and change the city’s char­ac­ter.

Vaid­hyanathan, who was elected in 2014 and sought a se­cond term, voted for a de­vel­op­ment plan that Bet­ter Cu­per­tino op­posed, one forged by some com­mu­nity res­i­dents as a a pos­si­ble al­ter­nate to Sand Hill’s. She said she will wait for the re­sults of the re­count be­fore com­ment­ing.

“There’s no mat­ter of con­ced­ing or not con­ced­ing,” Vaid­hyanathan said. “There’s no way of know­ing if it will change.”

The regis­trar au­to­mat­i­cally re­counts votes in any race where the mar­gin is less than 0.25 per­cent of to­tal votes cast. Close races have trig­gered re­counts in four other Santa Clara County con­tests: Oak Grove School Dis­trict Trustee Area 2, Or­chard School Dis­trict, the Luther Bur­bank School Dis­trict board and a school bond mea­sure known as Mea­sure HH.

On the heels of Thurs­day night’s swear­ing-in cer­e­mony, the coun­cil is set to con­vene a closed ses­sion Fri­day to dis­cuss a law­suit by Bet­ter Cu­per­tino, and a reg­u­lar coun­cil meet­ing on Dec. 18.

If a vote re­count puts Vaid­hyanathan on top, she would re­turn to her seat, ac­cord­ing to the city. A city spokesman did not im­me­di­ately an­swer ques­tions about whether any votes cast by Wil­ley in the in­terim would be in­val­i­dated should that hap­pen.

The city also didn’t say whether Chao and Wil­ley will be able to par­tic­i­pate in the closed ses­sion given their af­fil­i­a­tion with Bet­ter Cu­per­tino. Chao said Thurs­day the city at­tor­ney has cleared her to par­tic­i­pate in the closed ses­sion be­cause although she helped found the res­i­dents group in 2014 she is now only loosely in­volved.

The mixed-use de­vel­op­ment at Vallco has been a flash­point in Cu­per­tino since the pro­posal first be­came pub­lic in 2014.

The coun­cil in Septem­ber ap­proved the Vallco Town Cen­ter Spe­cific Plan, which al­lots the project up to 2,923 hous­ing units, 1,750,000 square feet of of­fice space, 400,000 square feet of re­tail and com­mer­cial space and 191 ho­tel rooms.

That agree­ment also re­quired the de­vel­oper to con­trib­ute to a com­mu­nity shut­tle pi­lot pro­gram, road im­prove­ments, con­struc­tion of city hall and other projects.

One of four ref­er­enda by Bet­ter Cu­per­tino would, if ap­proved by vot­ers, in­val­i­date the Spe­cific Plan.

The city an­nounced Thurs­day that all four ref­er­enda have enough sig­na­tures to qual­ify for the bal­lot. The coun­cil now has the op­tion to ei­ther adopt the four ref­er­enda out­right, or place them be­fore vot­ers at a fu­ture elec­tion.

But the de­vel­oper has in­di­cated it likely will pro­ceed with the project re­gard­less un­der the aus­pices of SB 35, a state law that fast-tracks hous­ing projects through the lo­cal de­vel­op­ment process by al­low­ing them to meet cer­tain le­gal re­quire­ments “by right.”

The Vallco project pro­posed un­der SB 35 in­cludes fewer hous­ing units — 2,405 — and no ho­tel com­po­nent, but more com­mer­cial space at 1,810,000 square feet. It would also al­low for taller build­ings, up to 240 feet or 22 sto­ries.

Both Wil­ley and Chao are af­fil­i­ated with Bet­ter Cu­per­tino, which is spon­sor­ing the four ref­er­enda for the 2020 bal­lot that seek to in­val­i­date the Vallco project and is also su­ing the city over its ap­proval of the com­pany’s SB 35 ap­pli­ca­tion.

Wil­ley was listed as the group’s pres­i­dent on non­profit reg­is­tra­tion pa­per­work filed with the Cal­i­for­nia Sec­re­tary of State’s of­fice in 2017, although up­dated forms sub­mit­ted this year don’t list him as an of­fi­cer.

Chao said although she helped found the group in 2014 and shares many of its val­ues, she has not been in­volved with its lead­er­ship for “quite some time.”

She said the pre­vi­ous coun­cil has been too cozy with de­vel­op­ers, Cham­ber of Com­merce and Ro­tary Club, and not con­nected with res­i­dents.

“Fi­nally there won’t be a di­vide — where the coun- cil goes in one di­rec­tion and the cit­i­zens are left in black,” Chao said. “There was no trans­parency, and en­gage­ment was su­per­fi­cial.”

Wil­ley said he isn’t op­posed to new hous­ing or com­mer­cial projects al­to­gether, but wants to see “sen­si­ble growth” and moder­ately- sized projects that won’t over­whelm the roads and lead to over­crowd­ing in lo­cal schools.

“Un­for­tu­nately the de­vel­op­ments get put in front of any con­sid­er­a­tion of traf­fic and schools. We need to do it the other way around,” Wil­ley said.

Vaid­hyanathan said Wil­ley and Chao both cam­paigned “to over­turn any­thing and ev­ery­thing we have done” and de­fended her vote for the spe­cific plan as one that pri­or­i­tized new hous­ing but also re­quired the de­vel­oper to pay for sev­eral com­mu­nity ben­e­fit projects.

“We ne­go­ti­ated $7 mil­lion for traf­fic im­pacts, a shut­tle for the com­mu­nity, bike paths,” said Vaid­hyanathan.

She also bris­tled at com- ments about a dearth of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment by the last coun­cil, point­ing to high at­ten­dance at pub­lic meet­ings about the Vallco project.

“You can see how many peo­ple were in­volved, every­body knew about it,” Vaid- hyanathan said.

The new coun­cil mem­bers were to be sworn in at 7 p.m. Thurs­day in the coun­cil cham­bers.

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