The Woodside Town Council on Tuesday reversed the Planning Commission's approval of the conceptual viability of an underground private "art cave" to be bored under a steep slope along Whiskey Hill Road.
In a 5-2 vote, the council granted an appeal by resident Tom Johnson contesting the Planning Commission's decision. The question turned on whether the proposal by resident Alex Balkanski to bore a 400-foot-long by 30-foot-wide tunnel would constitute a violation of town regulations prohibiting grading on a slope greater than 35 degrees.
In September 2014, the Architectural and Site Review Board, seconded by Planning Director Jackie Young, rejected Mr. Balkanski's proposal for 230 and 240 Whiskey Hill Road. Their concerns included disposal of graded soil, adequate space for a septic system if one should be required at some point, and policy questions about boring a tunnel on a relatively steep slope, Ms. Young said.
Mr. Balkanski had addressed these concerns before the proposal went to the Planning Commission, Ms. Young said. The graded soil for the tunnel could be used to restore an area on the property that had once been a brick-making operation, she said. The septic tank issue could be resolved by rezoning as open space a section of the property along the road.
The Planning Commission, on 4-3 split vote, gave Mr. Balkanski the go-ahead in November to prepare for a formal design review. Along with the underground tunnel/art gallery, his proposal included a beekeeping operation and two above-ground accessory structures connected to the tunnel.
In the manner of wine caves built in Napa County, the tunnel would be stabilized as it was built, according to a staff report. The builder uses a front-end loader to remove "small amounts of dirt" while creating hardened walls and a ceiling using sprayed concrete -- called shotcrete -- reinforced with heavy-gauge wire mesh.
The graded soil for the tunnel could be used to restore an area on the property that had once been a brick-making operation, Ms. Young said. The septic tank issue could be resolved by rezoning as open space a section of the property along the road.
The town's regulations are specific as to what cannot be done on top of a slope of 35 degrees or greater, but are silent as to underground work, Ms. Young said. The Planning Commission went with a spirit-of-the-law reading of the regulations rather than a strict reading, she said.
Council weighs in
The council considered the definition of grading, which the town defines as including excavation, which the town further defines as including removal or displacement of soil or cutting into the land, Councilman Ron Romines told the Almanac.
"I was very intrigued by the project. It was a very creative use of the parcel," Mr. Romines said. But approving it would have set a precedent, opening the door to further and more intense development of slopes, he said.
The council had been asked to determine how the language of the general plan and the municipal code applied to this particular situation, he said.
In 2012, the council established a policy requiring property owners to run their conceptual plans by the Architecture and Site Review Board for analysis before getting to specific plans. The point is to prevent home owners and architects from being blindsided by the town's rules and expectations.
Was this a case in which the system worked? "I think it really did," Mr. Romines said. "At least the property owner is spared the huge expense of fleshing out the details."
"I'm pleased that it got appealed to the council at this point (in the process)," he added. "It answers a question that was an important threshold question."
Councilman Dave Burow voted in the minority, along with Councilwoman Deborah Gordon. Mr. Burow said he would have had significant questions had it been a specific project that they were considering, but the council had been asked to look at a concept.
"On that basis, while I was very concerned that they could actually do a plan that conformed with our general plan, ... there wasn't a basis to deny the conceptual review," Mr. Burow said. "It was really that simple," he added. "I guess the others had a more rigid interpretation of the language of the plan and the municipal code provisions on slopes."