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Housing plan update passes Menlo Park Planning Commission

Menlo Park is nearing the finish line for the city's second housing plan update in two years.

The update will create guidelines for homeless shelters and granny units, in addition to providing a road map for housing development for 2015 through 2023 in compliance with state law.

The Planning Commission reviewed the final draft of the update on March 10. With all seven commissioners present, the group agreed that the Veterans Affairs campus on Willow Road was the best location to allow construction of a 16-bed homeless shelter, although whether one will actually be built remains to be seen.

Commission chair John Kadvany noted that Menlo Park already provides about 142 beds for the homeless at various spots around the city. The new zoning would just add 16 to the total.

Residents who live near the VA campus told the commissioners that they were concerned about locating a homeless shelter near a neighborhood with a park and three schools. They asked that the city ensure that the shelter zoning be limited to the boundaries of the campus.

Commissioner Katie Ferrick said she supports the campus as the best choice because of the availability of other services on site, and asked staff whether the city could limit the homeless shelter zoning to property owned by another entity, in this case, the federal government.

After some discussion as to whether the state, which must certify the housing plan update, would accept rezoning property the city doesn't control, Mr. Kadvany said the goal was to do everything possible to maximize the likelihood that a shelter would be built on the VA campus. Upcoming housing plan updates may require adding more zones in other locations, he said.

Granny units

Secondary, or granny, units provided another avenue of debate.

During earlier meetings, the commissioners had opted to reduce the required minimum lot size for a secondary unit to 5,750 square feet and allow granny units of up to 700 square feet to improve access for the disabled.

At the March 10 meeting, the commissioners unanimously recommended decreasing the minimum lot size even further, to 5,000 square feet, to broaden the number of properties that could qualify for building secondary units.

A more controversial discussion arose over whether a property owner must be required to live on a lot with a granny unit. "It's unenforceable anyway," Commissioner Vince Bressler noted.

However, the city still needs a mechanism to monitor whether absentee landlords result in deteriorating properties. While Commissioner Henry Riggs suggested that any property owner gone for more than a year should have to decommission a secondary unit, in the end commission recommended three changes to ordinance:

1) As long as both units are not occupied, the owner would not have to live on the property.

2) A registration process would also be established to allow both units to be rented out temporarily for up to four years.

3) In the case where owners wanted to keep renting out both a main house and granny unit for longer than four years, the commission suggested that they then have to apply for a use permit, which could cost approximately $4,000.

"It's not like they get this forever 'by right' renewal," Ms. Ferrick said. If the conditions at the property deteriorate, "we pull the permit."

The Menlo Park City Council is expected to vote on the housing element update on April 1.

Later during the spring, while conducting the annual review of fees for city services, council and staff will also brainstorm ways to lower the cost of building secondary units, which can easily exceed $20,000 for permits and other fees alone.

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