A pair of antique plant-filled urns are likely to stay in Atherton's historic Lindenwood neighborhood now that the City Council has upheld an appeal to prevent their departure.
The decision, made at the council's Jan. 17 meeting, could indicate a council trend of interpreting a recently enacted artifact preservation law in deference to residents' opinions rather than the Planning Commission and state and national guidelines.
The five-member council, on a 4-1 vote with Councilman Charles Marsala dissenting, denied the request of residents Randy and Lisa Lamb to take with them two antique urns from their Lindenwood property at 51 Laburnam Road when they move to their new home, also in Atherton but two and a half miles away on Park Lane.
The cast-iron urns, about 5 feet tall on their pedestals, date from at least 1937 and were part of the estate of Silver King James C. Flood, who lived in the area more or less defined by the walls of the Lindenwood neighborhood, now home to some 76 parcels, said Deputy Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders in a staff report.
The staff report recommended allowing the Lambs to take the urns and the Planning Commission had approved a permit to move them, as is permitted under the new law as long as the artifacts are well maintained, entered in the town's artifact inventory, and stay within town boundaries.
But a group of Lindenwood neighbors appealed the commission's decision to the council, which can reverse a ruling if it "makes a finding" to justify a different opinion, said City Attorney Marc Hynes.
Mr. Hynes, who is preparing the findings, told the Almanac he expects to include "half a dozen" that justify the council's decision, including their historical value and relevance to the Flood estate.
Who owns the urns? "They won't belong to the town," Mr. Hynes told the council. "All we're saying is that they can't be moved."
Randy Lamb told the Almanac that he and his wife own them, having spent $5,000 each to repair them, with one "rotted out on the inside" and the other found on the ground in three pieces. They're not in the front yard because they're small enough to be emptied and stolen, he said.
Marion Oster, head of the Atherton Heritage Foundation, said the urns had also been restored by a previous owner, a Ms. Thompson, after a gardener hit one and knocked it over.
Mayor Alan Carlson offered to compensate the Lambs for the urns, but his colleagues on the council did not second his motion.
Councilman Charles Marsala said in an e-mail that he took the Lambs' side because of the town's use of "eminent domain statutes to take possessions."
Asked to comment on the proceedings, Mr. Lamb replied: "We are appalled at the way the town's overly qualified (archeology consultant) was treated." Asked about possible legal action, he said they are evaluating their options.
Councilman Janz, who is also an attorney, said the council's decision "probably would survive a challenge."
By the time the James C. Flood estate was subdivided into the Lindenwood neighborhood in the early 1940s, significant structures such as the main house were already gone and artifacts such as urns were distributed among the new parcels, said Ms. Costa Sanders, the planner. The remnants of the estate still in their original locations include its outer walls and monumental gates, plus a few fountains and a bench or two.
While residents may see these artifacts as comprising a historic setting for the neighborhood, Laura Jones, the consulting archeologist hired by the town to evaluate the Lambs' request, said the setting really is Atherton, in part because so little remains of the urns' original context.
While Lindenwood's boundaries closely approximate the estate's original boundaries, so much change has gone on over the years that the location of the urns in the Lamb's yard "didn't really meet a reasonable test for me of being in a historical setting," Ms. Jones said, adding: "You don't know you're on a historical estate. You're in somebody's backyard."
Adding to that backyard sense is Atherton's focus on artifacts rather than on a major structure such as a building. It's unusual for a preservation district not to include a major structure, she said.
Fine points like these seemed to count for little to residents in the packed council chambers who wanted the urns to stay put. Several spoke, among them Gerta Ungerman, a resident who said she lived across from the urns for 30 years when they were in the front yard and that she "missed them terribly."
The previous homeowner, Ms. Ungerman said, would walk her to her door after a visit, notice the urns and say: "Aren't they beautiful?"
Resident Ron Peyton acknowledged that the urns were separated from their original locations on the estate, but are still physically close to the historic Flood Circle area. "The best preservation course is to keep the artifacts on site," he said.
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