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Woodside cuts some slack on nonconforming homes

The Woodside Town Council has asked the Planning Commission to slightly relax town regulations on the footprints of buildings, including homes, that are technically out of compliance with the standards of the town's land-use rules. Regulations tend to allow such structures to continue in their current form, but without much opportunity for modification.

Todd Alamin, a physician and the owner of a nonconforming house on Eleanor Drive, said he was thinking about remodeling his kitchen and had asked town staff about making a slight change to the shape of the house's footprint -- adding a 181-square-foot mud room in exchange for deconstructing an equal amount of floor area from another part of the kitchen.

Citing a longstanding interpretation of town regulations, town staff, later backed by a unanimous Planning Commission, informed Dr. Alamin that "Municipal Code Section 153.301(A)(2) does not permit the actual existing footprint to be increased in an area where the building does not currently exist, even if no increase in floor area is proposed," according to a staff report.

Dr. Alamin appealed the decision to the council and on Oct. 15, after more than an hour of deliberation on the consequences of changing a policy and setting a new precedent, the council voted 4-3 to uphold his appeal. Voting in the majority were council members Tom Shanahan, Dave Tanner, Deborah Gordon and Mayor Anne Kasten.

The discussion touched on planning officials' interpretation of the word "footprint" and what the regulation meant by disallowing "increases" to footprints. The department has been interpreting "increase" to refer to changes to a footprint's shape, Town Attorney Jean Savaree told the council. This interpretation is not uncommon among architects, said Councilman Peter Mason, an architect.

Dr. Alamin argued that the words "footprint" and "increase" should be interpreted using their everyday meanings.

Council members voting to deny Dr. Alamin argued that while he deserved a common-sense interpretation, by upholding his appeal, the resulting policy change could be exploited by other residents in nonconforming homes with more significant modifications in mind and who had been constrained by the earlier interpretation.

The majority did not disagree, but contended that denying Dr. Alamin would be an injustice and possibly a protracted injustice if the town's normal bureaucratic processes to change the policy extended over months. The council decision added pressure, directing staff and the Planning Commission, in its November meeting, to revise the regulations to specifically allow minor modifications to footprints of non-conforming structures.

New regulations could be in place by February.

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