Almanac

News - June 26, 2013

Louise Street conflict escalates

by Sandy Brundage

If a tree branch falls on Louise Street, someone will be there to hear it, watch it and photograph it, as the conflict between neighborhood residents and a Menlo Park developer heats up.

To recap: Developer Sam Sinnott and investment partner Mircea Voskerician want to build a driveway exiting on Louise Street from a property at 1825 Santa Cruz Ave. that they purchased for redevelopment. The exit would partially pave over a bit of greenery in the public right-of-way, and possibly bolster the developer's case for switching the address from Santa Cruz Avenue to Louise Street, which city staff has declined to support.

But staff did initially issue the permit for the driveway. Shortly thereafter, a group of neighbors asked the council to revoke it, partly on grounds that the driveway never existed, saying that 35 current and former Louise Street residents don't remember any vehicle ever accessing the lot from the back. The man who sold the property to Mr. Sinnott contests that, saying work trucks had. City staff noted that yet another previous owner also had a permit, but never followed through.

The council voted 3-1 to nix Mr. Sinnott's permit after hearing from both sides.

The neighbors then asked the city to turn over the public right-of-way to adjoining homeowners a process called abandonment with plans to preserve it as green space in perpetuity with easements for pedestrian access. The council is scheduled to vote on the abandonment July 16; planning commissioners voted 4-2 last month that the request follows the city's general plan, but noted that they were not voting on whether abandonment should proceed or not.

Tempers have not cooled while everyone waits for the council's decision. Police responded to a complaint of possible heritage tree damage on Louise Street on June 13. Officers, after consulting the city's arborist, determined construction needed to stop until protection was put up around a heritage tree trunk, according to spokeswoman Nicole Acker. Police also told residents who had blocked the work crew's trucks with their own cars to move, and they complied, Ms. Acker said. No one was cited.

Both sides called the other out for behaving rudely during the confrontation.

To hear the residents tell it, Mr. Sinnott's work crew showed up and tore down foliage, in the process damaging a heritage redwood tree growing on the right-of-way. The crew stripped away a screen of greenery that used to keep the neighbors from seeing Santa Cruz Avenue, they said, visibly changing the character of the street and leaving the residents terribly upset.

To hear developer Sam Sinnott and his attorney, Bill Garrett, tell it, the yard work thinned the backyard as a fire precaution and to save a heritage oak tree choked by overgrowth, after being authorized by the city's arborist. Protective fencing was installed as soon as the yard work cleared enough space, they said, and three to four redwood tree branches that crossed the property line were trimmed to avoid breakage as the crew's truck pulled into the yard.

Mr. Sinnott had informed the city about the work in advance. City Attorney Bill McClure told the Almanac that he suggested the developer wait until after the council votes on the abandonment "to avoid creating or escalating a conflict with the Louise Street neighbors."

The city attorney also said that no permit is required for the developer to access his property from Louise Street and that no laws would be violated by doing so "provided he does not remove any vegetation or trees from the public right of way, perform any work in the public right of way, or cause damage to the public right of way" without city approval.

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