Almanac

News - May 7, 2014

Woodside: It's not easy being on the ASRB

by Dave Boyce

Spare a thought or two of gratitude for the seven volunteers who serve on Woodside's Architectural and Site Review Board, which has the complicated task of reviewing residents' site development plans and making recommendations to the planning director.

Their mission: to preserve Woodside's "rural" character and natural beauty while still allowing residents, some of whom have a lot of money, the freedom to design homes to match their wealth and ambitions.

The conflicts are built in. Some examples:

• Residents place a high value on "rural" living in homes that are subordinate to the features of the landscape, but the town is minutes away from global high-tech centers of business. The ASRB regularly sees plans that push the envelope of town regulations to absolute limits.

• While Woodside lots are often large and expensive, many are ill-suited for much property development, given problems that include sloping topology, complicated soil, creek beds, venerable trees and seismic faults, all of which limit where construction can take place. The ASRB is often the messenger bearing the news that the applicant is trying to do too much in too small a space and in ways that challenge rural character.

• Given the limits above ground, Woodside has been lenient below ground, and applicants have responded with increasingly sophisticated and massive basements, including tunnels connecting underground rooms. Site grading and site disruption have become issues.

The town overhauled its general plan and residential design guidelines in 2012, but there remain misalignments between these documents and the municipal code, which can create loopholes. The Town Council met with the ASRB on April 29 to discuss these matters. The joint meeting was a first step in a series of initiatives to correct these misalignments, with a studious eye toward avoiding unintended consequences.

One major change from 2012, requiring an applicant to submit a conceptual design to the ASRB, appears to be working.

Having the ASRB comment early is meant to prevent formal plans from being blindsided by the town's rules and expectations. Over the last 24 months, said Planning Director Jackie Young, one conceptual design review has been enough for 83 percent of the applications. In 12 percent of the cases, two reviews have been necessary, and 3 percent have come back a third time.

Three is not three

The council asked ASRB members to comment on their milieu.

The client doesn't understand why they can't build what they want, said member Tom Livermore. "We don't give any opinions except that the house is too big (or) that the intensity of use is too great. We don't say what that means," he said. It's hard for the ASRB and for the architect, he said.

Maximum floor area is a touchy issue. A three-acre lot is allowed 15,000 square feet of paved area, and maximum floor areas of 6,000 square feet for a main residence and 1,500 for an accessory structure. But topographical limits may be severe.

"Three acres is not three acres in Woodside," said member Nick Triantos.

The ASRB will make suggestions, on massing for example, and applicants won't take them seriously, Chair Thalia Lubin said. Things work well if the applicant and the architect understand the design guidelines, but there's a constant struggle between what's allowed and what people want to build, she said.

'This is what I want'

One exchange shed some light on life in the ASRB trenches.

Councilman Peter Mason suggested that a split vote by the ASRB on a proposed project should inform the applicant that there's a problem.

"Applicants don't look at it that way," councilman and builder Dave Tanner responded. "They don't get it and their architects don't get it."

"If (the vote) isn't 7-0, then there is some issue," Mr. Mason replied.

For the applicants, it's more black and white, ASRB member Maggie Mah said. "They say 'This is what I get to have (in acreage and maximums) and this is what I want.' How do we balance those maximums and what do we say to them? They still keep coming back." The biggest issues are size and openness of land impacted by a high number of accessory structures, she said. "That alters the town significantly. It really changes the face of the town."

The ASRB should stick to criticizing applicants' designs and offering suggestions, Mr. Tanner said.

The ASRB does offer criticism and suggestions, but the applicants don't take the suggestions, Ms. Lubin said. "(They say they) explored the options and decided to go with their original design."

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