Woodside year in review: Residential design issues dominated news


Basements, their sizes and their locations, were a significant talking point in Woodside in 2015. So, too, were size limits on main houses, at least in Woodside Heights. And criticism of the processes of architectural and site review simmered for months before boiling over in the fall election for a seat on the Town Council.


A stand-alone basement-like proposal came before the council in February on appeal after the Planning Commission voted 4-3 to allow a formal design review of an underground concept -- a 400-foot-long by-30-foot-wide tunnel to be used as a private art museum on an undeveloped but steeply sloped parcel at 230 and 240 Whiskey Hill Road. Town ordinances forbid construction on slopes of greater than 35 degrees, but the rules did not address below-ground structures under sloped land.

The Architectural and Site Review Board had rejected the idea, as had the planning director, both citing concerns that included disposal of graded soil, allowing room for a septic tank, if necessary someday, and tunnel-boring operations on slopes.

On a 5-2 vote, the council upheld the appeal. Allowing the tunnel would have set a precedent, Councilman Ron Romines said. In dissent, Councilman Dave Burow noted that it was only a concept, not an actual plan.

In Woodside, basements are not uncommon. Forty had been built since 2009, an average of seven per year, Planning Director Jackie Young told the council in April at a study session on basements. But Town Hall had received nine applications in the first quarter of 2015, she said, with proposals showing increases in size and intensity of use, "a significant departure" from basements envisioned when bare-bone regulations were drafted in 1995.

The proposals included basements beyond the footprint of the building, multiple basements connected by tunnels, stand-alone basements, and basements equipped as accessory living spaces, she said. In response to Ms. Young's data, a council subcommittee recommended that the council adopt an urgency ordinance putting a moratorium on all but conventional basements.

The measure failed to get enough votes. Urgency ordinances require approval by a four-fifths majority to pass a 6-1 vote on a seven-member council but the council voted 5-2.

The council held two more study sessions, in May and July. Opponents of tighter basement regulations, led by residents Greg Raleigh and Richard Draeger, funded a private study that concluded that basements represent an energy-conserving lifestyle; technical problems can be overcome with engineering; and regulations should envision entire houses underground.

At the July study session, the council considered regulations recommended by the council subcommittee, but took no action. The recommendations included tying basement size to zoning, keeping square footage no more than maximums allowed for main houses, allowing no more than 50 percent of a basement beyond the building footprint, requiring geo-technical and hydrological analyses, and keeping basements out of setbacks unless they're under structures that predate the setbacks.

House size

In the spring of 2014, residents of Woodside Heights, a neighborhood east of Interstate 280 and south of Woodside Road, asked the council for a 1,500-square-foot increase to the 4,000-square-foot limit for main houses in their zoning area. The neighborhood borders Atherton, where larger houses are allowed. Some residents talked of being annexed to Atherton.

Council members listened but resisted calls for quick action and said they would study the matter. A major concern was figuring out how to treat all Woodside neighborhoods fairly.

In October 2015, the council agreed in concept to a town-wide increase of up to 10 percent beyond the maximum floor area allowed for a main residence. But with three members retiring in December, the council passed the decision to the new council.

Project review

Meanwhile, simmering in the background in 2015, some vocal residents came to the council with complaints about oversight of home construction and remodeling projects by some members of the Architectural and Site Review Board. The board and the planning and building departments have been on the receiving end of harsh criticism for years by residents who complain about too much attention to detail and not enough of a welcoming attitude to residents with visions for their homes.

The board meets twice a month, often with lengthy agendas, to make recommendations to the planning director on a project's alignment with the town's residential design guidelines and rural character as outlined in the general plan.

In September, a staff report from Town Manager Kevin Bryant proposed several changes to the review process. Noting that it had been two years since the process was last changed, Mr. Bryant wrote that the time was "appropriate ... to determine if there are changes that would make the ASRB and the Design Review process more valuable to the Town and applicants."

In October, the council adopted an ordinance along the lines of the staff report recommendations. A key change: designating the planning director to review certain small projects, including accessory living quarters, gates and entry features, signs, outdoor lighting, fences that depart from designs specified in the municipal code, and projects with dimensions less than or equal to 1,000 square feet that are located within scenic corridors and the western hills.

Complainants said they welcomed the changes as a beginning. The director retains the right to refer a project to the review board.

The council also reduced the allowable size of the board to five members from seven, eliminated duplicate review of a project by the Planning Commission and the board, and codified existing practices around consolidating projects that have grown incrementally since the issuing of a building permit.

Council election

In August, Nancy Reyering, who in February 2013 was unanimously appointed by a full council to a second four-year term on the Architectural and Site Review Board, filed papers to run for an open seat on the council.

Ms. Reyering was unopposed until mid-October when Chris Shaw, a corporate executive, filed papers to run as a write-in candidate. In an interview, Mr. Shaw, who said he decided to run on Oct. 12 after discussions with residents "over the course of a couple of weeks," called Ms. Reyering "an incredibly polarizing individual" and added that he was dissatisfied with elections in which candidates run unopposed.

On her campaign website, Ms. Reyering noted that she understood local government and a need for careful guidance on key issues in town, and that she brought "an important perspective to the table to balance residents' needs for construction efficiency while maintaining our town's rustic charm."

Three council members came out against Ms. Reyering's election, one supported her, and three did not take a public position. Mr. Shaw won with 53 percent of the vote.

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