Almanac

Cover Story - March 6, 2013

Eye of the beholder

Where a developer sees opportunity, neighbors see treasured green space

by Sandy Brundage

To people living on Louise Street in Menlo Park, it's a battle over the rights of residents versus developers. For Sam Sinnott, a developer, it's an exercise in frustration. The Menlo Park City Council will need to balance both perspectives during its March 5 meeting.

Mr. Sinnott bought a home at 1825 Santa Cruz Ave. last year with the intent of demolishing it to make way for a new single-family house he would then sell. Simple enough, except that the rear of the lot faces Louise Street — an appealing location to build a driveway, given Santa Cruz Avenue's traffic.

The neighbors, some of whom have lived on Louise Street for decades, support Mr. Sinnott's plan — as long as it doesn't include a driveway on their street.

The driveway is not a new idea. According to city documents, the owner of the property in 1984 asked permission to build a 15-foot-wide driveway there to evade the heavy traffic on Santa Cruz Avenue. The city said OK, but the owner never got around to the project.

The group of neighbors opposing the current attempt said they talked to 35 current and former Louise Street residents, and no one recalled any vehicle ever accessing the lot on that side. However, the man who sold the property to Mr. Sinnott told the city the intention was always to shift the lot's main entrance to Louise Street by creating a driveway.

Mr. Sinnott told the Almanac he thought the real issue was two illegal parking spaces next to a public right-of-way that potentially would disappear underneath his driveway, along with a swath of greenery in the right-of-way that neighbors say their children like to play in. He said he offered to create two parking spaces for the neighbors to keep using and will retain as much greenery as possible, among other mitigations, and remains open to suggestions.

"If they want a play area, we could design it," he said.

No dice. "We are opposed to any driveway connecting 1825 Santa Cruz Avenue to Louise Street. A concession for his right to infringe into our development is not what we are looking for," said resident Kiki Kapany, spokesperson for the Louise Street neighbors opposing the plan. She said the parking spaces have nothing to do with it.

Instead of a driveway, they want to claim the public right-of-way that fills the end of their street with a riotous tangle of bushes and trees. The neighbors pooled an estimated $10,000 to file an "abandonment application" that asks Menlo Park to grant the land to the adjoining homeowners, since the city has no use for it. Abandonment benefits the neighborhood as a whole, rather than a single developer, they said.

It would also eliminate Mr. Sinnott's ability to create an exit from his property on Louise Street, according to the city staff's report.

Public Works Director Chip Taylor told the Almanac abandonment isn't common. "It really depends on the issue. ... if the council decides they are not going to approve the driveway there, there's no reason for the city to maintain that little piece of right-of-way."

But, he added, city staff recommended approving the driveway. The required encroachment permit is "typically done over the counter, but property owners can appeal any decision to the council." According to the city's report, however, "(s)taff cannot recollect the last time a driveway permit was ever appealed."

Developer and neighbors have reportedly sat down many times to hash out the issues. Louise Street resident Michael Schwarz described the conversations as "not especially productive. He's intent on building the driveway and at this point we're equally intent on stopping it."

Building the driveway would support Mr. Sinnott's attempt to change the address of the home from Santa Cruz Avenue to Louise Street, and that also rubs the neighbors the wrong way.

"We respect the developer's right to build a new house on the property. But he has no right to take a property on Santa Cruz Avenue and turn it into a property on Louise Street," said resident Kiki Kapany.

The city does appear to agree that the address of the home should remain on Santa Cruz Avenue, with staff saying no when Mr. Sinnott asked twice during the past 12 months if they'd support changing the address.

Despite that, an ad for a new $5.5 million home ran on Craigslist in December 2012: "New Development, 5BDRs, 5 baths, 1 Office, Guest house, basement, 2 car garage ... Current address: 1825 Santa Cruz. New expected address after development will be complete: 100 Louise St. Frontage of house will be on Louise St."

"My partner put that up; that's wrong," Mr. Sinnott said. He said the point of the ad was to find a buyer early enough that the family could have input into the layout, materials, and other customizable aspects of the house.

Changing the address requires a formal application to the Planning Commission, he said, and the previous staff reviews "were helping me to decide if I wanted to pursue the change concurrently with the encroachment permit. I decided not to and have a conforming building permit application moving forward now without a frontage change. If I go forward, it will be the first request."

Mr. Schwarz said that the developer appears to behave "as if it's a done deal," which has galvanized the opposition. "He tells us he's going to be improving our neighborhood and increasing our property values. Well, we think our neighborhood's fine and we're happy with our property values."

The regular City Council meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St. on Tuesday, March 5.

Go to tinyurl.com/a9qt8kl to review the staff report on the appeal.

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