Basement limits for Woodside homes beginning to take shape


The Woodside Town Council was back at the drawing board on May 26, talking about basements at a second study session on whether to establish rules to regulate their size and location.

A conventional basement is confined within the footprint of the building above it. In a community of flat, uniform parcels, uncomplicated terrain and limits on a resident's spending, such a basement might be the norm. But Woodside has steep, woody terrain; parcels of a half acre to more than 30 acres, often with limited areas suitable for construction; and many residents for whom expense is no concern.

The town's current regulations have no size limits on basements. While critics of new regulations noted that no one has yet proposed a basement encompassing a parcel's entire buildable area, there's nothing on the books to prevent it, council members said.

The council took on this issue in response to a staff report noting an increase in the number and complexity of basement proposals in 2015. Current regulations are few, which has been complicating project reviews for members of the Architecture and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission as they attempt to implement a 2012 town general plan that emphasizes a rural ethic and living lightly on the land.

In 2013, a resident of Mountain Wood Lane got approval for a nearly 14,000-square-foot basement with a six-car garage, three bathrooms, a bunkroom, two powder rooms, a family room, a media room, an exercise room, a massage room, an office, a pantry, a wine cellar, storage area and inside-outside courtyards, according to a staff report.

A 9,500-square-foot basement going in on Mountain Home Road will have a garage, three mechanical rooms, a wine cellar, an audio-video equipment room, a laundry, a lounge, two powder rooms, a storage room, a bowling alley, a sitting room, a recreation room and a sunken courtyard with an exit stairway.

The council considered recommendations from a three-person council subcommittee: general contractor Dave Tanner, attorney Ron Romines, and architect Peter Mason. The council addressed four issues: the relationship of basements to property-line setbacks, the relationship to the structures above, grading, and the technical analysis of the site.

There were extended discussions on basement size and location, and on site technical analysis.

Outside the footprint

On size, the subcommittee recommended that basements be allowed 100 percent of the square-footage limit for a maximum sized residence on a given parcel. Fifty percent of that basement allocation should be allowed under open ground.

A home on a property with a 3,000-square-foot maximum for the residence, for example, could accommodate a 3,000-square-foot basement, with 1,500 square feet allowable under open ground. Basements under open ground would require a 3-foot-deep covering of soil.

The 50 percent figure troubled Councilwoman Anne Kasten, who imagined a house surrounded by open ground and 3 feet of soil above an unseen basement. Perhaps parts of a basement outside the footprint should be located under structures or impervious surfaces, she said.

The 50 percent rule, Mr. Mason said, would allow basements on properties with existing houses without having to excavate under the house. For new homes, basements outside the house footprint would be unlikely, he said. "Unless you've got a really good reason for putting it outside, you're not going to do it," he said. "It's so much more expensive."

Terrain can be an issue, Mr. Tanner said, and flexibility is needed because it's not possible to foresee every situation.

During public comment, resident Richard Draeger suggested that a basement size limit of 150 percent of the maximum is reasonable. The council should emphasize the aesthetic benefits of relocating things underground, he said.

Resident Greg Raleigh, a critic of the regulations, told the council that about a dozen residents have engaged a consultant to prepare a separate basement study.

Councilman Ron Romines called the recommended limits "pretty generous" and evidence of the council's appreciation for the real benefits of basements.

Councilman Dave Burow disagreed. "I think that we're taking away a perceived right of the property owner by putting any restriction on it beyond what we're at presently, and that we should be careful that we do it in a way that doesn't devalue people's property rights," he said.

"I know a lot of people talk about property rights," said resident Thalia Lubin, "but we also have community rights. ... The regulations are what's kept Woodside really special."

The council consensus: With some tweaking, the staff should go ahead and craft language for a draft ordinance for review at another study session in July.

Experts for hire

Limits are needed, Mr. Burow said, for protecting significant trees and for basements proposed in terrain determined to be unsuitable. "I think we ought to be tough about just telling the applicant, 'Forget it. You can't build a basement,'" he said.

Subsurface water occurs in Woodside, and a bore hole may encounter water just beneath the surface, Mr. Tanner said. "Sometimes when you disturb a spring, you just ruin (it)," he added.

An engineer may find a solution, but if it's not thoughtful, that solution may not work, Mr. Romines said.

Perhaps the town should require engineers who are insured, Mr. Tanner said. To do so, he said, would "restrict it to people who really know what they're doing. ... It'll help it quite a bit because there are a lot of idiots out there who'll write their name down to anything for a dollar and try to engineer around it."

Planning Director Jackie Young proposed requiring findings as to what technical attributes a basement should have.

The town should provide an outline for the site technical report, and it should include significantly more detail than ordinary site reports, Mr. Mason said. Mayor Tom Shanahan and Mr. Mason added that tests of soil should be similar to what is done when installing a septic tank.

Mr. Tanner suggested that soil testing require multiple bore holes, not just two or three.

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