Almanac

News - May 15, 2013

Menlo commission votes on Louise Street issue

by Sandy Brundage

After much discussion, the Menlo Park Planning Commission voted 4-2 on May 6 that if the city turns over a piece of land in the public right-of-way on Louise Street to adjacent homeowners, it would follow the general plan. A group of Louise Street residents has asked the city to abandon the wedge of land, and plans to implement an agreement to preserve the green space in perpetuity with easements for pedestrian access.

Developer Sam Sinnott and investment partner Mircea Voskerician want to build a driveway exiting on Louise Street from a property — 1825 Santa Cruz Ave. — that they purchased for redevelopment. The council revoked the driveway permit after opposition from neighbors, but the applicants haven't given up.

During the commission meeting, Louise Street residents Michael Hubly and Louise DeDera argued the general plan supports preserving neighborhood character and stability, in addition to pedestrian access, all of which abandonment would accomplish.

Mr. Sinnott's counterargument focused on the legal rights of property owners who abut a right-of-way, as well as the general plan's emphasis on traffic safety and housing creation. Exiting on Louise Street rather than Santa Cruz Avenue is safer, he suggested, and moving the driveway would make it easier to build a granny unit on the lot. He put forth a redesigned driveway that he said preserves more green space than his initial design, as well as an existing oleander bush.

Intricate legal issues arose during the commission's discussion, including whether the city is allowed to give away the public land and whose property rights took precedence.

Several commissioners, as well as planning staff, concluded the general plan supports both abandonment and a driveway. So the commission cast a 4-2 vote that abandonment fit the general plan, with Henry Riggs and John Onken dissenting and Ben Eiref absent.

Commissioner Vince Bressler, who voted yes, described his stance as protecting community property rights. "That's really what we're here to try and protect."

Commission chair Katie Ferrick said that while she thought abandonment technically followed the general plan, she wasn't convinced the best answer was handing over public land to private ownership.

Voting in the minority, Mr. Onken commented, "I'm not swayed by the argument that one extra car is going to suddenly turn Louise Street into a freeway."

Two commissioners had some suggestions for the neighbors after the vote was taken. Ms. Ferrick and Katherine Strehl found a petition presented by the neighbors a "distraction," and questioned whether everyone signing it understood the issue.

"I think they thought a park was in danger," Ms. Ferrick said, and cautioned that the petition may not represent the best evidence available in favor of abandonment when the council hears the issue.

The online petition, which has now gathered 328 signatures, describes the green space as "a dense foliage screen" and flowering "wooded buffer zone." City staff and a few council members are now researching how to create a formal process for submitting petitions that would include guidelines for how to describe projects and verify signatures.

The Louise Street residents expressed concern that Mr. Sinnott will install the driveway anyway, despite the permit revocation, and said he's threatened to sue. Resident Michael Schwarz told the commission the developer has already cut down fruit trees and other foliage without permission.

"This is some good neighbor," he said.

For his part, Mr. Sinnott said he'd rather not sue, but views the city's actions as disregarding his access rights as an abutting owner and the attempt to simply give away the land as illegal.

Asked whether he might build the driveway without a permit, he replied: "Of course not."

The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the abandonment request on July 16.

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