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‘These uses are not new to the universe; they’re new to us’

BENICIA — As a means of attracting more jobs to the city, Benicia is considering adjusting zoning and land-use laws that would permit more tech and development companies to occupy about one third of the city’s land area, including all of its industrial park.

The Planning Commission discussed last week some of the land-use designations that might occur. Potential new acceptable uses include zoning for companies in the fields of biotechnology, clean tech, dry labs, information technology, occupational health clinics and wet labs, according to a report provided to the planning commission dated Aug. 1.

City staff has not yet identified the precise economic benefits or the amount of potential jobs from allowing for more tech-related businesses, according to the report by Economic Development Manager Amalia Lorentz and Land Use and Engineering Division representative Mark Rhoades. But “there is the potential that the implementation of policy changes for the business park will result in greater city revenues and substantial new job creation.”

The Planning Commission and city staff are currently studying environmental impacts of any rezoned land. An environmental impact review may need to be conducted in order to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires that cities prepare an environmental study on proposed policy and land-use changes. An appropriate determination of CEQA review could include a negative declaration, a mitigated negative declaration or an EIR, the report said.

City staff so far said the new changes likely would not trigger an EIR, but further study is needed before any final determination.

“These uses are not new to the universe,” said Ms. Lorentz. “They’re new to us, but they’re very consistent with what’s happening around California.”

The possible land-use changes are a part of the city’s larger attempt to redefine the role of its business mix and are consistent with other efforts to attract a diversified cross-section of business that will stimulate the economy.

“Benicia has a significant opportunity to prepare itself for new market economies and emerging business and technology sectors,” the report said. The land-use changes would also “allow Benicia to capture revenues and jobs that would otherwise locate in jurisdictions or locations that provide more favorable land-use and entitlement conditions.”

The issue of allowing animal testing could be the biggest hurdle among the proposed changes, the report said, with several Planning Commission staffers raising concern about thresholds, criteria and rationale. Animal testing is currently not allowed within the city, and subsequent environmental issues related to it could spur “specialized study for CEQA purposes.”

Although concern surrounds the inclusion of animal testing, city staff recommends that it be permitted as an accessory use to biotechnology sites. A stand-alone testing center would require a use permit, the report said.

Ms. Lorentz said the animal testing component of biotech is a common part of such business, and ultimately it’s a minor element of the overall changes.

“It’s a very minor piece of the proposal. It’s a fairly common element of biotech that a lot of cities don’t acknowledge. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, though,” she said, noting that the city included it in an attempt to be more transparent.

The city’s overall intent “is to expand opportunities for high-tech and clean-tech type businesses in Benicia as a sustainable growth and part of the city’s larger economic development strategy.”

The city is facing a budget deficit of nearly $1.6 million.