Almanac

News - May 28, 2014

Residents want right to build larger homes

by Dave Boyce

Woodside Heights, though within the borders of Woodside, is a community apart: It sits east of Interstate 280 and it is adjacent to West Atherton, where market values tend to be higher by comparison. The landscaping resembles that of West Atherton: The homes are somewhat hidden from the street by the trunks and foliage of large heritage trees.

Unlike Atherton, the floor area of primary houses in Woodside Heights is limited to 4,000 square feet. And there's the rub, as recently presented in a 14-page proposal to the Woodside Town Council.

Residents of Woodside Heights, represented by Greg Smith of Eleanor Drive, asked the council on May 13 to amend the zoning of their properties.

The proposal, "Woodside Heights: Rethinking Our Zoning," asks the council and town government to change the municipal code by taking 1,500 of the 15,000 square feet of permitted floor area on a one-acre lot and reallocating it to primary houses. Such a change would allow a primary house a maximum of 5,500 square feet. The proposal requests that this be done in three months' time.

Council members were sympathetic to the residents' request, but reluctant to move as quickly or as significantly as requested. The chief concerns: a 37 percent increase in house size, and the unintended consequences — including a domino effect — if such a change were done without sufficient analysis of the impact on other neighborhoods.

Mr. Smith didn't buy it. "The council should not stop our proposal to pursue a hypothetical question," he said.

Eleanor Drive resident Bill Perrine said that "literally everybody that I've talked to has basically been in favor of it. It isn't that much of a change." The residents' proposal includes a survey showing 95 percent support within the homeowners association.

"I just want something that fits in the neighborhood and fits my family," said Elizabeth Bellock, also of Eleanor Drive; she added that the change might make the area more attractive to younger families.

Councilwoman Ann Kasten, whose council district includes Woodside Heights, supported the proposal, in part because it might discourage clusters — primary houses and accessory structures. "To me, that's not rural. It's low end," she said. The town's design-review process is "pretty good" at managing what houses look like, she said, but added: "I understand the argument that if you do this, you open the door."

Fifteen hundred square feet is too much, said Councilman Dave Tanner. But with more people working from home, "I understand the need for more square footage," he added. "There's a certain balance that we must have. ... I think it needs to be studied, and I'm willing to take the time out to do that."

Councilman Tom Shanahan said he was concerned that larger homes would attract larger families and wondered about the effect, not over five years but over 50 years. "Any property that increases population density is not going to get my support," he said.

Councilman Ron Romines called the proposal "well-considered," but said that he was not persuaded. The change has majority support among residents there, the area is geographically isolated from much of Woodside, and it shares a border with Atherton, but "I don't find that terribly persuasive," he said. "It doesn't mean we adopt the standards of the other town. ... We have much different standards than Atherton."

Atherton as yardstick

Atherton is kind of a standard in Woodside (and Portola Valley) in that when it is mentioned in public, it is usually to point out something undesired, such as solid perimeter walls, imperial-looking gates and other visible indicators of great wealth. But in the Woodside Heights proposal, in a list of unattributed complaints under the title "Our Frustration," that view is not found:

"We sold our house there and moved to Atherton where they don't have that 'crazy zoning.'"

"Why are they building so many beautiful homes in Atherton and not here? Rural doesn't mean run down."

"The town is too difficult to deal with. Why don't we annex our neighborhood to Atherton? We have more in common with them."

Marilyn Voelke, chair of Woodside's Planning Commission, described the Atherton comparisons as "alarming" during the public comment period. The domino effect from this proposal would create an "Atherton" effect as it moved through town, she said.

Resident Tom Broderick said he agreed. "It's a very thin line between what we have today and big boxy houses." Atherton would allow a 20,000-square-foot monolith that three people would live in, "like an (Egyptian) pyramid," he said. "It seems to me that (Atherton) has absolutely no code whatsoever."

"We need to be prudent," said Councilman Peter Mason, "and we need to look at all the unintended consequences. The last thing I think we want is mini-Athertons."

Deep-sixed?

With a recognition of the urgency felt by Woodside Heights residents, the council added the issue to Town Hall's work plan — a list of priorities that is reviewed periodically.

Residential development priorities, noted Mayor Dave Burow, include resource conservation, energy efficiency and the primacy of the land's natural state, all factors that are better addressed in one structure than a cluster. The current proposal, while in need of tweaking, "seems very logical to me," he said. "It's very safe to say we'll get through this item no later than the next fiscal year. It could be sooner than that."

"I just want to make sure I understand," Mr. Smith said at one point. "You guys have deep-sixed this, and if we go ahead and file an application (with the Planning Commission) as we're entitled to, you will not approve that until you have finished your other survey work."

"We're not deep-sixing it," said Mr. Tanner. "We're putting it on a work plan. We have a lot of work to do. It's not going to be deep-sixed. It's going to be looked at and studied. It's not deep-sixed, it's not shelved, it's not thrown away. It's being acted upon. That's what we did just now. But we can't tell you we're going to do it in two weeks, we can't tell you we're going to do it in two months. We have to study it and find out."

Mr. Smith replied: "I think you've managed to translate ... a relatively simple change into a quagmire of endless debate. ... You have, actually, no time frame or a deliverable, nor have you articulated any specific standards by which you are being held to respond to our very specific request."

"In its present form," Mr. Burow said, "if it was put before the council tonight, it would not pass."

Mr. Shanahan weighed in. "I'm not very excited about being interrogated about my time frame. I'll tell you what. There are a lot of priorities in this town and I think you've heard me be very clear: I don't rate yours very highly at all."

"Got it," Mr. Smith replied.

"We're doing the best that we can," Mr. Shanahan said. "Right now, you just don't have the votes on this council to do what you want to do."

"There you have it," Mr. Smith replied.

"And I don't think that your priorities are particularly high," Mr. Shanahan added. "Now obviously, Anne Kasten disagrees, but you see, you've got some disagreement here. This is not going to happen fast because there is opposition."

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