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Every so often city council members and planning commissioners are put in the uncomfortable position of trying to determine whether residents who have violated the terms of their building permits are being sincere when they say: "Oops. I made a mistake. I'm sorry -- have mercy."
The Woodside Planning Commission was in just that situation last week when it reviewed a Mountain Home Road residential building project that went off the tracks and greatly exceeded the limits of what the town permitted.
The commission did the right thing in recommending that the project, which in November it had approved as a remodel, be sent back to the town's Architectural and Site Review Board for review. With that action, the commission rejected the town staff's recommendation to sign off on amendments to the previously approved plan for the mansion at 360 Mountain Home Road.
By instead endorsing a strategy that forced the applicant to stop work on the project, resubmit plans and obtain new approvals, the commission gave a clear message: When the town stamps "Approved" on a property owner's permits, there are consequences to overstepping the bounds of those permits.
(The Almanac learned at press time that the Planning Commission is expected to rehear the issue in late July; the ASRB is not expected to review it again.)
At issue is the property owner's complete demolition of the mansion's first floor and basement, despite the fact that the Planning Commission had authorized only a partial demolition of the basement to accommodate the approved basement expansion, according to a staff report. The approved plans, which had also been endorsed by the ASRB last year, included expanding the main house to 7,825 square feet from the current 7,425, and raising the heights of some portions of the house. The applicant is listed only as SV Projects LLC.
The applicant's representatives have argued that during the construction process, building professionals determined that removing those floors would allow crews to shore up the structure to better support new stone siding. But the glaring question is: Why didn't the applicant consult Town Hall before diving into work that clearly went beyond the scope of what was permitted by the town?
Planning Commission Chair Marilyn Voelke, after hearing a representative of the applicant refer to the excessive work discovered by a town inspector as only a "moment in time" for the project, aptly asked: "How long was that moment that it took to decide to take out the first floor? Was it long enough to call staff?"
As ASRB member Rick Anderson put it, the project's construction managers "are not rookies." Not only should they have known what to expect in "remodeling" a structure that will include stone siding, they also should know that project changes that exceed the permitted scope must be approved, and the first step is to consult the town's planning staff.
Countless residents making changes to their homes sometimes face what they might see as costly, time-consuming and frustrating hurdles in obtaining project permits. But the majority honor the process. The Planning Commission's action discourages egregious violations of the rules generated by the idea that it's better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
In a related matter, the town of Woodside would do well to adopt Portola Valley's and other public agencies' practice of organizing site visits by council and commission members as open meetings, giving the public and press access to what might be occasions for the public's business to be discussed. In this case, commissioners were encouraged to visit the construction site individually, avoiding a quorum, and making the process less transparent.