News

Does Woodside Town Hall make it too difficult to build or remodel?

Town Council plans to survey users of its building and planning departments.

For years, Woodside Town Hall has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism over how it reviews plans to build or renovate homes in town.

Critics complain about persistent attention to detail in the building and planning departments, and that the staffs are not sufficiently oriented to creating a pleasing experience for applicants when they seek building and conditional-use permits.

To learn more about the nature and extent of the criticism, and whether it is justified, the Town Council is considering surveying residents and contractors who have engaged with these departments over the previous nine months.

The council is acting on a suggestion by resident William Fender, who proposed a survey after describing his unsatisfying experience with the town as he tries to remodel a two-car garage.

Although Woodside's goals are simply stated in the town's general plan maintain rural character yet allow for reasonable development of private property oversight of these activities is a complex task, in part because Town Hall has a reputation for extraordinary attention to detail, something Town Council members have acknowledged.

Town Manager Kevin Bryant has proposed that the town adopt a brief survey, modeled after one used in Milpitas. The survey would ask nine multiple-choice questions about whether town's services are responsive, timely and consistent. A tenth question seeks additional feedback.

What critics say

Such a survey might just scratch the surface of the public's discontent, said Greg Raleigh, a resident and regular critic of planning and building regulations. "Right now, we have a very difficult set of ordinances that evolved over time to make a rat's nest, a maze for people to get through," he said.

The ordinances also allow for interpretation by staff, the Architectural and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission, and the interpretations have not been favorable to residents, he said.

Town officials can be cops or coaches in overseeing planning and building, Mr. Raleigh said. "We have a lot of cops right now in the program and we don't have very many coaches. If you take a broken process and you act like a cop, that's what creates all the pain," he said.

Town Hall should focus on helping applicants fit their projects within the system and "have an enjoyable experience," he said, rather than on matters such as limiting off-haul of soil from properties.

One of the key questions that applicants should ask themselves, he says, is: "Were you allowed to implement your vision?"

"It's embarrassing," said resident Bengt Henriksen, "that many contractors don't even want to go to Woodside because it's too complicated." Mr. Henriksen recommended studying the effectiveness of town bodies such as the Architectural and Site Review Board and Planning Commission, where, he said, he has heard "the most naive questions" asked of applicants.

Town Hall should be given deadlines on when small, medium and large projects should be resolved, he said.

The survey's questions, said Mr. Fender, should "ferret out where major problems are" so the council could consider appropriate changes. Some examples of survey questions: Was the staff flexible? Did they work to find solutions? Do they have a sense of urgency to move the project forward?

Council weighs in

At its July 28 meeting, the council discussion focused on gathering useful data in a way that captures the applicant's actual experience.

"You need to break it down," Councilman Dave Tanner said. "If you have a bad experience going in to get a tree (removal) permit, should it reflect upon the planning department or the engineering department?" he said.

The survey does need more specificity, council members said. Perhaps a check-all-that-apply box, Mayor Tom Shanahan said. "Three or four boxes (checked) on a major project, that's probably worthwhile (data)."

To relate to the applicants' point of view, maybe the queries should be arranged by activity rather than by department, members said. Questions should be asked as a project progresses, and the survey should convey the message that anonymity is assured, they said.

In gathering data over time, staff needs to find a way to prevent abuse of the survey process, Councilman Dave Burow noted. "We don't want to be gamed," he said, by someone who's "very unhappy" and submitting negative comments every day.

"We're going to get a lot of negative comments because this is a stressful process no matter who does it," Mr. Shanahan said. A positive approach might say, "'We particularly welcome your suggestions for improvement,' so that we get some action items, not 'You stink.'"

The survey should convey the message that "we do care, we are trying to be responsive and we want to get this information and we want to make changes," said Councilwoman Deborah Gordon. "And the most important thing is the last one, on here's what you can do to make it better."

A subcommittee of Councilman Burow, Mr. Raleigh, Mr. Fender and Mr. Henriksen will be reworking the survey language to come up with a second draft for presentation at a later meeting.

Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Anonynous - I still live here!
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Hills
on Sep 11, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Took us longer to get the permits than it did to actually build the house from the foundation up! Individuals are great but it feels that because of some past indiscretion of citizens, we are all forced to pay to prevent something from happening again. There definitely is a sense that money is not an object to town residents and the process requires bleeding money through one's nose to get things done. Can't count the number of times we were required to get outside review (at our expense) from engineering, architect, etc for the slightest of issues - clearly the game is all about avoiding potential liability and making sure someone else can be tagged if there's an issue. We were constantly waiting to hear yet another "oh, by the way" from the town but we didn't want to say what we really thought as the process would really get difficult.


4 people like this
Posted by Terri
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 11, 2015 at 9:43 pm

In our experience, working with the town to complete our building project was a long and arduous task. At the time, the Woodside inspector was Curtis. He would come to the house, find something less than perfect, and not sign-off until fixed. We would correct the problem, then he would find something else wrong, and still not sign-off. Each step could take 3 inspection trips, before approval was granted, because he was intent on making the experience as difficult as possible. He left the department suddenly, toward the end of our project. After he left, it became much more tolerable process...thank goodness!


2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 12, 2015 at 7:42 am

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

Woodside is notorious in the local construction community as one of the most difficult building and planning departments to work with in the local area. The only one worse is the San Mateo County Building and Planning departments.


6 people like this
Posted by Glad I don't live there anymore
a resident of another community
on Sep 13, 2015 at 2:36 pm

I recently read an article by a local realtor (DeLeon) who commented that Woodside home prices do not appreciate like the rest of the Bay Area because of the arduous renovation process. I totally believe it! Most residents have a horror story about the planning/building department. I, too have a long, boring tale of woe that includes a terrible inspector and the Building department who backed him up. Suffice it to say that the Planning and Building process in Woodside is extremely capricious and depends on who is interpreting the never-ending rules and how savvy your contractor is. After completing one project, many law-abiding residents opt to avoid the planning department on future projects. We had "I won't tell if you won't tell" agreements with our neighbors because the best way to get caught is if your neighbor turns you in. But going through the proper channels in Woodside is equal to "no good deed goes unpunished." Something drastic needs to change and I hope that this Town Council has the cahones to take on the real people who run that town.


2 people like this
Posted by about time
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 15, 2015 at 5:28 pm

Thank you to the town for taking this survey on. Please be prepared to deal with the results. No one in their right mind would go into a renovation process in Woodside due to the combination of arbitrary rules, ASRB nazi's, extensive costs driven by extensive requests, and ability of remote neighbors to sabotage plans that have no impact on their property or even the town. You make baby steps towards completing your project only to be torpedo'd, nit-picked, and virtually spit on at random unpredictable steps. Individual people are nice and helpful, but that doesn't fix a fairly broken process is broken. Also some people have too much power for the town's good.


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Posted by Non-Wealthy Woodsider
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Hills
on Sep 16, 2015 at 4:01 pm

I concur on the need for the Town Hall to change it's ways. We did a simple renovation, simply updating part of the house to modern times. No outside walls were moved, and only maybe 5' of internal walls moved to re-configure a bathroom. The process took us 4 months to get approved! Based on the feedback I have seen, I guess I should be thankful.


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Posted by RGS
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Sep 17, 2015 at 12:06 pm

The most worrisome aspect of this article (which I applaud) is the complete lack of response/improvement/recognition of the problem from Town Hall. The people change, but the problems don't. It took us over two years to build a pool on completely flat land needing no exceptions. And the attitude of staff is either one of incompetence or arrogance. Their proposal now for a "survey" is embarrassing in its inadequacy (I remember partaking in a "focus group" several years ago, and absolutely nothing came of it.) Their survey is merely a deflection of responsibility, once again. What can we do to change our own community for the better?


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 17, 2015 at 12:31 pm

We are still in the final permitting process for our project, so I prefer to be vague about some details.

It was a very straightforward construction project, needing no variances or exceptions. It took us more than two years to get through the permitting and more than $30,000 in 'soft costs;: reworking of plans because the NEXT person at the planning office did not care for how the cross hatching was drawn. Those costs did not include the cost of the permit itself.

This was crazy making. There is no retaining wall or anything that would justify so many re-dos of our plans. In addition, they made us get a topographical survey of our entire property. Since our property is heavily wooded and portions are very steep (NOT where our construction is) this needed to be done by walking the ENTIRE property. Our town has lost sight of the bigger picture and is lost in minutiae.


2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

" What can we do to change our own community for the better?"

Fire the entire staff and start over. Right up to and including the City Manager, Building Official and the head of Planning. This kind of crap comes from above.


3 people like this
Posted by And yet I still love it there
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Sep 17, 2015 at 4:11 pm

In am with anonymous above: the worst part of the entire process is not so much the local restrictions in and of themselves but the lack of consistency when it comes to enforcing them. We've had to go through multiple revisions simply because you have multiple individuals, with different *opinions*, reviewing at any given point. 1st round is reviewed by employee nbr 1. Plans comes back with feedback. Great, you play along and make the requested changes. Changes are now reviewed by employee nbr 2 who could not care less about the changes that nbr 1 had requested but flag his/her own changes that employee nbr 1 never flagged in the first place.

I wish the Town could provide popcorn while we watch that movie unfold.With free refills.


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Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 17, 2015 at 5:10 pm

pogo is a registered user.

Woodside is notorious for having an arbitrary approval and permitting process. Those of us who live here have experienced this firsthand. Several posters have retold their experiences - capricious actions by plan reviewers, inconsistent review process (reviewer #1 requests changes, changes made, reviewer #2 wants more...), incredible and expensive time delays.

But people should understand that there is a small and very vocal group of citizens that are perfectly content with this and cheer it. This group is against growth and that includes ANY expansion to your property.

Even more disturbing is the fact that those who favor making permitting as difficult and arduous as possible for Woodside property owners are in near-control of the Town Council. If citizens are truly troubled, they need to let the Town Council know.


4 people like this
Posted by Retired Realtor
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 18, 2015 at 8:22 pm

The comment by DeLeon is ridiculous but then DeLeon has been on the scene for a shorter time than my 6 year old grandson. Woodside real estate prices and Atherton's have always been different, Atherton being more pricey. And even so, I don't know of any property in Atherton that sold for anywhere near the bank-busting $117 million that one in Woodside did.

Construction is not a walk in the park anywhere that I've ever lived or worked. Try to find out the rules and abide by them. It will make the journey more pleasant, and you can get back to enjoying your little piece of heaven.


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Posted by Grew Up Here
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Sep 19, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Deleon's comment is NOT ridiculous. In selling property here recently several currently active (not retired) local real estate agents assured me it is much harder to get potential buyers to look at Woodside property than Atherton property specifically because the town is so difficult to deal with on any kind of construction.


5 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Sep 19, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Saying Woodside town hall is "so difficult to deal with on any kind of construction" is one way to put it, but that is a point of view.

How about saying that town hall is so difficult to deal with because residents and past officials have put a very high priority on maintaining the rural character of the town, and that the town's consistently rural appearance when driving through there is a direct and ongoing consequence of town hall's fastidious attention to detail?

Yes, planning and building is not as easygoing as it is in Atherton, but driving through Atherton is like driving through a toyland of one grandiosity after another. Variations on a theme of a walled off community patently unfriendly to wild animals and hikers -- see the list of "suspicious circumstances" items in their daily log by their concierge police force. You won't find that in Woodside.


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Sep 19, 2015 at 9:05 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

sorry joe, but the problem isn't that Woodside demands people adhere to the zoning regs, it's that the demands aren't CONSISTENT. If they were it wouldn't be an issue. Read what others have written about their experience.


1 person likes this
Posted by Crazy
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 20, 2015 at 5:48 am

The items the town and ASRB cause difficulty about are not usually related to maintaining the rural character of the community. They have no respect for the costs and emotional impact of all the needless rework they ask for. Not everyone in this town is a multimillionaire. And homeowners have families and careers to take care of while dealing with the crazy-making approvals process.


6 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 20, 2015 at 9:57 am

pogo is a registered user.

I will give you an example that has nothing to do with "rural character."

I sat in on an ASRB meeting a few years ago. The applicant owned a very large, multi-acre parcel on Whiskey Hill Road and this family had spent several years with an architect planning their project. The home's design was consistent with a "rural" style and was well within the size limits allowed by the town. In fact, those issues were not questioned.

During the architect's presentation, one of the ASRB members looked at the blueprints and said (I'm paraphrasing) "I think this home would be better if you 'flopped' the layout and put the kitchen and nook on the other side of the property?" The homeowner quickly stood up and joined the architect at the microphone. She said (again paraphrasing) "we have spent years working on this at our site. We have gone there in the early morning to watch the sun coming up and gone there in the early evening to watch the sun setting in the west. We wanted our nook to enjoy the morning sun and we wanted the living room to face the setting sun."

I watched this remarkable exchange in total amazement. After looking at these blueprints for all of 30 minutes and clearly enamored with her own architectural expertise, this ASRB member was sufficiently emboldened to question a design element that had NOTHING to do with any regulation and attempting to NEEDLESSLY impose her style on a family that had diligently worked on their project for years. My only thought was "how dare she."

While this is just one example, it is one that I witnessed first-hand.

When officials are so intoxicated with their power that they would even dare to make such irrelevant comments - questioning design elements that have nothing to do with their authority - perhaps residents are rightfully fearful of retribution.


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Posted by other
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Sep 21, 2015 at 7:07 am

I drive past a HUGE project on Sandhill every day - What is the project that is going on between Manzanita & Portola Rd? Just how long did those permits take to get thru ??


2 people like this
Posted by Another Comment
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 21, 2015 at 9:33 am

If not anything else, there should be a rule implemented that the town inspectors must identify all issues pertaining to the given step, at the time of the first inspection visit (no exceptions). It is ridiculous that a homeowner can comply with the suggested corrections, to only have the inspector identify more issues at the subsequent visit. Could you imagine if other aspects of our society acted in a similar manner? There would be riots.


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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 21, 2015 at 10:20 am

Hi same anonymous poster/skulker.

With all due respect to those folks that do not live in Woodside, If you have not experienced the process at Town Hall you have no clue just how onerous it is. Isn't it nice that we all keep Woodside nice and rural and pristine so that you can enjoy it? No one here wants it to turn into Atherton...at least most of us do not.

I have lived here 33 years and have experienced the building process many times. the current incarnation is the worst that it has been in all those years.

Really? Two and half years for a project that in most towns would have been almost over-the-counter approval. No variances, no exceptions needed. Grading , sure and we were happy to comply with all the soils and civil engineering on site and on paper. But TWO AND HALF YEARS?

My feeling is that every employee feels the need to justify their own job by making additional revisions to the plans. Every time the plans were sent back to us, it was more cost and even more delays. As other writers have pointed out, there is no consistency.

And our property is still very rural and a thoroughfare for deer and other wildlife. WE like i that way. Our excessive revisions had nothing to do with the scenic corridor or maintaining the rural look and feel.

I very much like the coach vs cop analogy. We indeed require more coaches in our planning department.


Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 21, 2015 at 10:25 am

Egads. Sorry for all the typos!


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Posted by What's next?
a resident of Woodside: other
on Sep 28, 2015 at 5:39 pm

When should we expect an update to this story?

I continue to hear that Woodside denizens feel powerless to speak up on this issue for fear of the additional costs and time that will be added to their current and future projects.


Like this comment
Posted by Dave Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Sep 28, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Dave Boyce is a registered user.

The council may take this topic up again in October.

The Planning Commission and the Architectural and Site Review Board have been reviewing several suggestions proposed by town staff, including proposals to streamline the project review process and engaging one or more architects to consult with applicants.

For details, go to Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by Glad we are done
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Oct 12, 2015 at 10:25 pm

I appreciate that we get to live in a relatively rural area, but would NEVER build in Woodside again. I see, as a big part of the issue, the ASRB having a militant and arrogant attitude towards anything that is not a California Ranch house (circa 1950) that is under 2,000 square feet.

Worse yet is their willingness to weigh in on what color your home can be or why square pillars must be used instead of round - true story.

The absolute abomination is the extortion they use to force their own visions and agendas onto home owners. I witnessed first hand two members of the ASRB tell a resident that they would approve his plans if he would move his fence line 10' and surrender the land as an equestrian easement in exchange for approving his plans. Thankfully the room was packed with citizens and several leaped to their feet and protested loudly the extortion being committed with impunity.

The start of this thread dealt with streamlining the process - start with the NON-ELECTED ASRB!


4 people like this
Posted by rural resident
a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda
on Oct 23, 2015 at 1:22 pm

I am just wondering how easy it was for Ms. Reyering to get her horse arena expanded? Hmmmmm.....


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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