Almanac

News - August 6, 2014

Woodside council likely to decide mansion's fate

by Dave Boyce

The future remains uncertain for the partially demolished three-story mansion at 360 Mountain Home Road in Woodside. The mansion made news in 2012 when it was sold for $117.5 million, a new U.S. record for a single-family home, according to news reports at the time.

The town's Planning Commission deadlocked on July 31 over what to do about the unauthorized removal of the first floor and first-floor framing as part of what was described in a staff report as a "simple remodel."

The town's stop-work order has been in place since July 3, and the mansion's second and third floors have been resting on steel beams in mid-air above a hole in the ground.

Should work be allowed to continue, but with added conditions? Or should the owner be forced to seek new permits based on what staff now considers a demolition? Both questions were voted on by the seven-member Planning Commission, and both received 3-3 votes, leaving the property owner with two paths forward: canceling the project or appealing to the Town Council. The deadline for an appeal is Monday, Aug. 11. An appeal is expected.

Commissioner Aydan Kutay was absent.

Staff reports list the owner of the 8.74-acre property as SV Projects LLC. The owner has been represented in public meetings by the Mill Valley firm Van Acker Construction Associates, and by attorney John Hanna of the Palo Alto firm Hanna & Van Atta.

What happened?

The 7,423-square-foot mansion was completed in 2009. The 2013 remodeling plans included replacing wooden siding with stone, expanding the basement, and replacing the roofs with gray slate.

While the 2009 home was considered by the Architectural and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission as "inconsistent" with the town's design criteria, the limited scope of proposed changes in 2013 led to the town's permission to expand the house, including adding 400 square feet of floor space.

The project was presented to the town by the applicant as a "simple remodel, with recladding and small additions," according to a staff report.

Once into the project, contractors said they discovered issues, including a potential for leaks between old and new basement walls and a problem with the load factor of stone siding, the report says.

The town granted a permit to demolish the basement and recognized the need to elevate the house, but specified that it be done without removing the first floor or its framing. "I thought that was a very clear line," Planning Director Jackie Young said.

On a site visit in mid-May, town inspectors found the house with the first floor and first-floor framing gone, contrary to the permissions granted by the town. The missing framing "tipped the project into the realm of being reasonably considered a demolition of the existing residence," the report says.

At the July 2 meeting, commissioners split on their views of the situation. Adolph Rosekrans, Elizabeth Hobson and Ms. Kutay spoke of forgiveness and allowing the owner to continue work. Chair Marilyn Voelke, Karen Rongey-Conner, Grant Huberty and Suzanne Muller were less forgiving. Ms. Muller sided with Mr. Rosekrans and Ms. Hobson on the July 31 tie votes.

Van Acker spokesmen apologized for not consulting with the town on complications with the basement demolition, but the commission voted 6-1 to refer the matter to Planning Director Jackie Young, recommending that she send the project back to the ASRB. Instead, Ms. Young issued a stop-work order pending further consideration by the commission.

Pretty dramatic

On July 31, attorney John Hanna, representing the property owner, spoke to the commission. "I'm here to try to restore some order to the chaos and confusion we went through at the prior meeting," he said. "It was hard, for me, I know, to see the forest for the trees."

Basement demolition became complicated, he said, upon discovering that the first-floor composition was not traditional wooden joists but a combination of concrete and corrugated steel. It was not detachable from the basement and had to come out, he said. The framing that hung from the elevated second floor then became a safety issue and had to be taken down, he said.

"That went beyond the scope for demolition," Mr. Hanna admitted. "It's pretty dramatic. You look at this and your first reaction is, 'This is a remodel?' ... The point is that we could have done a better job ... and we didn't."

"What are we going to do about it? That's really the question," he said. "Are we going to use that to kill the project?"

"This will be a learning experience for both of us, I think," he added. "We firmly believe that this is not an event that rises to the level that the whole project be sent back to the drawing board."

Several commissioners didn't buy it, including Ms. Voelke: "I see the trail of how we got here as quite different than you do," she said. The real issue, she said, is that the commission's approval was based on representations about the project, and that the extent of demolition has undermined it.

Van Acker admitted having access to the home's original plans from the start of their involvement. "You have represented yourselves to be one of the very best and experienced (in the business) and (you were) in possession of plans," Ms. Voelke said.

"I feel, I believe, that this situation was manipulated," she said. "The entire picture that was painted led us to the position to grant (approvals). That is my struggle. We have to treat everybody the same," she said. "People come to the board and they expect to be treated the same. What do we tell the next person (who) says, 'You let that guy off'?"

There would be consequences to a denial, Mr. Hanna said. If the project is allowed to proceed, the concrete first floor will be replaced and resulting home will be as originally approved. The exterior should be finished by fall 2015, and the interior and landscaping a year later, he said. If delayed, it could be eight years, he said, adding: "I think you have to temper your decision."

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