Almanac

News - March 13, 2013

Menlo Park planning commissioners question council's overruling of their duplex decision

by Sandy Brundage

After the Menlo Park Planning Commission unanimously said yes to plans for a duplex at 1976 Menalto Ave., the City Council said no. City officials usually accept such differences of opinion with equanimity. But not this time.

"I'm not happy with how the council handled this decision and I'm very concerned with the ramifications for future Planning Commission decisions," commission chair Katie Ferrick told the Almanac, whose opinions matched those expressed by several fellow commissioners.

"It creates a great deal of uncertainty for anyone considering a major remodel or new home project," she said. "It also adds a great amount to the cost and time involved when contemplating a project. Further, it undermines and diminishes the value of the work planning commissioners and planning staff put into analyzing projects such as this."

Billy McNair, the owner of 1976 Menalto Ave. in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park, applied last year to build a duplex on the 112-foot by 54-foot lot. The area's zoning allows two residences on the property, but he needed variances because of the size and layout, as well as permission to remove three heritage trees.

The Planning Commission reviewed the details during a study session and visited the site before voting 6-0-1 to approve the project, with new commissioner John Onken abstaining.

The 22 neighbors opposed to the project appealed to the council, who overturned the approval with a 4-1 vote, Mayor Peter Ohtaki dissenting, in February.

Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs expressed disappointment at the plan's rejection after the applicant made all requested changes and incorporated neighbors' feedback. However, "the bigger problem is that a unanimous, informed Planning Commission vote means so little," he said.

Leaving the council to make decisions "in an emotional setting, partially informed and (with) no fact-checking of appellant claims compared with the complete perspective of two commission hearings" is what a good process is designed to avoid, for the sake of neighbors and applicants, according to Mr. Riggs.

Councilman Ray Mueller had asked the council to consider taking a re-vote on the project, saying he had now visited the site and may have come to some wrong conclusions. But his motion, made late during a long evening on March 5, died for lack of support. His colleagues indicated they didn't see enough new information to justify a reconsideration, and expressed concern about the workload already facing the council in upcoming months.

"The refusal last week to re-consider their earlier, half-informed, late-night vote was, well, bizarre," said Mr. Riggs. "Maybe council should be limited to four hour meetings — none of us are at our best when it gets that late — they met from 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. or later twice in a row."

Late hours aside, Planning Commissioner John Kadvany said the council's comments about the number of upcoming agenda items — "so therefore where would a reconsideration be fit in, is a complete violation of any sense of process," especially for an applicant who has already invested approximately $65,000 and in light of the pressure on the city to add housing.

Deciding not to reconsider their vote won't save the city any time, he said, since staff will now have to evaluate another proposal for the site that will then go to the Planning Commission again, which will have to juggle projects to make room for the review, and potentially opens the door to another appeal to the council.

"This was a 6-0-1 vote from the Planning Commission," Mr. Kadvany said. "McNair says, if it had been something like 4-3, then there would be a case that 'some on the PC got this wrong'. But just what did we get wrong? What was flawed?"

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