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June 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Menlo Park council dumps home-building rules Menlo Park council dumps home-building rules (June 02, 2004)

** After unanimous vote, task force may create compromise.

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

After months of controversy over new home-building rules, the divided Menlo Park City Council came together on May 25 -- to rescind them.

Councilwoman Mickie Winkler, the council's chief champion of the rules, made the motion to repeal them, saying she wanted to avoid more fighting in town.

"We need to pull together," she said. "The community is under stress, economically."

The rules had been put on hold by a successful referendum petition, which required the council to either rescind them or have the voters decide whether to do so. While Ms. Winkler and Mayor Lee Duboc had stated just the day before that they thought residents wanted the chance to vote on the matter, they ended up joining their council colleagues May 25 in a unanimous vote to rescind.

Ms. Duboc began to cry as she seconded Ms. Winkler's motion to repeal, saying: "Mickie Winkler, I think you are the bravest woman alive. ... You worked so hard on this ordinance."

She added: "It's hard to deny something that is really good for the community ... (but) I really believe this would turn into an ugly situation during an election year."

Ms. Duboc, who had been a staunch defender of the rules, said later that the fact that Ms. Winkler had made the motion to repeal was a major reason why she changed her mind.

Without the new rules, the current residential zoning ordinance, which many have criticized, remains in place. So the council also agreed to have city staff study options for creating compromise changes to the ordinance, likely involving a task force.

By law, the council cannot pass new rules that are substantially similar to the rescinded ones until a year from now, City Attorney Bill McClure said. But it can approve an amended version.

Crafting a compromise version was the hope of several residents at the meeting, including developer David Bohannon, former mayor Steve Schmidt, and architect Sam Sinnott, who joined forces to lobby the council.

"My city council worked for three years on the new zoning ordinance. We thought we had it right, but we didn't," Mr. Schmidt said at the meeting, alluding to a previous incarnation of the ordinance that was rescinded in 2002 after new members were voted onto the council.

While Mr. Bohannon, Mr. Schmidt, and Mr. Sinnott have not always agreed on issues, they did all push for a compromise on the rules in hopes of dispelling the negative controversy.

"My presence here tonight with Sam Sinnott and David Bohannon is a sign that I think we're getting close (to a compromise)," Mr. Schmidt said.

After the meeting, Ms. Winkler said that she had found the three "persuasive" and agreed with their message.

Other residents at the meeting urged the council to put the home-building rules on the ballot.

"It's the democratic way to let voters decide," said Jim Harvey, who also pointed out that the rules included the creation of a review committee that would keep a close eye on the rules for any problems during their first six months in effect.

Councilman Nicholas Jellins, who had joined Ms. Duboc and Ms. Winkler in voting for the rules, made a substitute motion May 25 to table the matter. He suggested that both sides might be close enough to be able to sit down and create a "list of tweaks" to the rules fairly swiftly, rather than having the council rescind them. No one seconded the motion, and Mr. Jellins ultimately voted with his colleagues to rescind.

Councilmen Paul Collacchi and Chuck Kinney have consistently opposed the rules. Mr. Collacchi told his colleagues May 25 that he hoped the task force would represent a scope of "balanced views."

Supporters of the rules say they would make the approval process for new homes and major remodels more straightforward and equitable by removing much of the human discretion. Opponents, though, say that discretion is needed to protect against outsized homes that could harm the privacy and sunlight access of neighbors.

The details of a compromise remain to be seen, although some possibilities have been suggested. Mr. Sinnott, who has supported the rules, at the meeting listed some changes that might please opponents, such as adding non-binding design guidelines for homes in Menlo Park.

Meeting canceled

The Menlo Park City Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, June 1, has been canceled because it immediately follows the Memorial Day holiday. The next scheduled meeting is Tuesday, June 8, in the council chambers at 801 Laurel St.

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