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November 02, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Woodside council wants to fix much-maligned building process Woodside council wants to fix much-maligned building process (November 02, 2005)

** Engineering division reforms aren't enough, residents say.

By Andrea Gemmet

Almanac Staff Writer

Is there anybody in Woodside who thinks the building process is going well? Anybody at all?

The adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" clearly does not apply to Woodside's system for getting plans approved and permits issued to build houses, driveways, additions -- or even prefabricated barns. At least, that's according to the members of the Town Council, the town staff, grumbling residents and a member of the Architectural and Site Review Board.

Town officials are well aware of some of the problems. Consultants hired to help improve the engineering division found a number of issues -- communication problems, delays caused by a heavy workload, the need for a third engineer.

Other problems, aired by a few exasperated residents at the Town Council's October 25 meeting, seemed to catch town officials by surprise.

"It's almost impossible to build something in Woodside," said Rebekah Witter, who told the council that she's been trying to get approval to install a prefabricated barn. "My barn took 10 months to get a permit. Three months of that, I admit, were because of my contractors not staying on top of the process, but even seven months for a pre-manufactured barn is too much."

Ms. Witter, a designer, said the architect who designed her home refuses to work in Woodside anymore, and she's discovered that many contractors impose a "Woodside surcharge" because the town is so difficult to deal with.

Woodside's reputation for being a difficult place to build is in part because the town itself -- heavily wooded, hilly and laced with creeks, mudslides and fault lines -- has challenging geography. And since few residents are looking to construct modest, unassuming homes on perfectly flat lots, the construction projects are challenging.

Over the years, officials have imposed strict rules to preserve the town's rural atmosphere, and even construction projects that are perfectly legal regularly raise the ire of some residents for being too big, too ostentatious or not rural enough. Many credit the tough rules and difficult terrain for keeping Woodside looking like Woodside, rather than an outpost of Atherton west of Interstate 280.

But it's hard to follow the rules when you can't figure out what you are doing wrong.

"We had two people in the same department telling us two different things. How are you supposed to know how to go forward?" said Shaunalia Kahn, who said she has been trying to build a home on Eleanor Drive for 3 1/2 years. "It took nine months just to get stucco approved."

Anne Kasten, a member of the Architectural and Site Review Board, said the most important quality in a prospective engineer candidate is good communication skills.

Jim Caldwell, a Woodside resident and architect, said some members of town staff have "obstructionist personalities" who are not interested in finding solutions when there are problems with building projects.

Ms. Witter said it was the system, not the personalities, that was causing problems.

"The people you deal with in the building department are wonderful, but there's an arbitrariness that runs through the process," said Ms. Witter. "The sky's the limit, and there's no consideration given to the hassle factor."

She gave as an example a town requirement that the barn, which will take six days to put up, have an elaborate foundation that could support a 5- to 10-story building, Ms. Witter said. This type of barn is often erected with no foundation at all, she said.

The council's agenda just called for getting an update on the consultants' recommendations made in July, many of which hinge upon the hiring of a new development review engineer, but members got an earful about the entire system not only from residents but from Councilman Pete Sinclair, who has a home-building project of his own.

Mr. Sinclair complained that he would respond to one set of comments and questions on his plans, only to be hit with a new set on his revised plans. He said it felt like nobody was in charge of the entire process and no one was interested in finding solutions.

"It's almost as if people were proud to have found a problem with my plans," Mr. Sinclair said. "The only one talking in solution-mode was (Planning Director) Hope (Sullivan)."

"I'm emotional on this because I'm living and breathing this right now," Mr. Sinclair admitted.

He said the problems run far beyond just the engineering division.

"The decibel level about how bad the building and planning (departments are) is as loud as I've ever heard it," he said.

The Town Council called for a special meeting on Monday, November 7, in order to come up with a process for gathering complaints and using them to reform the system.

Council members asked Town Manager Susan George to take the lead, but she warned that many in town see her as part of the problem. She said she would try to come up with some sort of forum where residents would feel comfortable to speak freely. Ms. Kahn and Mr. Caldwell both said they were warned not to speak at the meeting for fear of retaliation.

"I hope everybody recognizes at least one thing -- we take this seriously," said Mayor Paul Goeld. "We live here, and we have projects, too."

The best legacy council members could leave Woodside is the creation of a more functional and friendly town, he said. However, that doesn't mean that "anything goes," he said.

Councilwoman Deborah Gordon said officials must weigh the complaints about the difficulties in building with complaints that the town is too lax, and allows massive construction projects to go on under the radar with no oversight.

"We've got to find a balance that's fair to all of the parties involved," said Ms. Gordon.

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