News - December 1, 2010

Atherton council opts for its own compromise on Parker Avenue

by Renee Batti

Almanac News Editor

It's only one, short street made up of small lots, but Parker Avenue in Atherton has been the source of one big, prolonged headache for the town's staff, Planning Commission and City Council. Although it appears that the headache might finally be over, the medicine is bitter for many to swallow.

The council on Nov. 17 considered the latest recommendation by the Planning Commission for resolving the house-size regulations issue that has for years divided the street's residents almost evenly. But with Mayor Kathy McKeithen taking the lead, the council rejected the compromise the commission had hammered out after conducting two public hearings in October.

On a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Jim Dobbie opposed, the council introduced an ordinance that reflected its own, less restrictive compromise plan worked out in September.

After the meeting, Mr. Dobbie expressed frustration that the council rejected the commission's work and recommendation, saying the commissioners looked at the matter in a thorough way, and it was "just ridiculous" to ignore its proposed solution. "Some of the planning commissioners are very, very unhappy with this," he said.

The lots on Parker Avenue — a dead-end street off Stockbridge Avenue — are less than 10,000 square feet, making them atypical of most lots in town, which are about one acre. Some residents have argued that the R-1 zoning rules that govern the street are so restrictive for small-lot homeowners that they have been unable to build garages and other reasonable additions to their homes.

Those residents have pushed for either changing the street's R1-A zoning to the less restrictive R1-B zoning that governs the few other smaller lots in town; or creating special rules, known as an overlay district, within the R1-A zoning district for their street.

During a series of public hearings before the council and the commission over the past several years, residents opposed to changing the rules argued that allowing larger houses on the small lots would adversely alter the unusual neighborhood's ambiance and lead to houses that are too large for the cul-de-sac, with garages protruding toward the street.

When the issue came before the council again, earlier this year, members directed the commission to review it and recommend a solution. Twice, the commission voted not to change the rules. But the issue wouldn't die.

With several residents continuing to push for change, the council majority in September agreed on a compromise plan that would change the front setback requirements of the current zoning, allowing residents to extend their houses toward the front. The compromise also would allow homeowners to build an additional 547 feet of floor space, among other changes. The council sent that plan to the commission for review.

The commission voted unanimously to alter the council's compromise plan, arguing for its own version that would, among other things, retain all existing setbacks and allow more square footage for houses.

In arguing for the council's own compromise plan crafted in September, Mayor McKeithen on Nov. 17 noted that the commission failed to treat the matter as a land-use issue rather than a neighbor-against-neighbor dispute. The council's compromise plan, she said, "is what's right for the town," not just for a few residents of one small street.

Parker Avenue resident Duane Wadsworth criticized the decision, noting that one or two residents on his street seemed to hold an unreasonable amount of sway with some council members. "We've got to compromise, that's fine. ... But (the council ignored) the Planning Commission three times in a row."

The ordinance creating a Parker Avenue overlay within the R1-A district will come before the council for a second reading on Dec. 15 before becoming law.


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