If regulations on basement size now under consideration by the Woodside Town Council are adopted, the rules would allow a maximum 2,695 cubic yards of soil to be removed from some sites, an amount that would fill Independence Hall, where the council meets, more than five times.
Planning Director Jackie Young used this statistic at the council's Feb. 23 meeting to kick off a four-hour discussion on the wording of an ordinance regulating the size and location of basements, including a formula for calculating basement dimensions. A revised ordinance will be coming back to the council for further review and possible approval.
A major change coming out of the discussion: Most of the council wants to increase the area of a basement that can be built beyond a structure above it to around 65 percent, up from a recommendation of 50 percent from a council subcommittee.
For residential zoning districts, council members agreed on a grading maximum based on the maximum allowable house size -- 3,000, 4,000 or 6,000 square feet, depending on property size -- multiplied by 12 (to convert to cubic feet) then divided by 27 (to convert to cubic yards).
The proposed ordinance sets the maximum basement depth at 20 feet, and council members saw that figure as reasonable. Also seen as reasonable: that areas of basements not located under an enclosed structure be covered with at least three feet of earth to allow plants to grow; and that basement areas designed as patio/light wells and tunnels should each be limited to 15 percent of a basement's allotted space.
Resident Susan Crocker complained from the audience about three feet of earth not being enough. "What can you grow in three feet?" she asked.
The proposed ordinance would have allowed 50 percent of a basement to extend beyond the footprint of the enclosed structure above it. After extensive discussion, the council, on a 5-2 straw vote, recommended to staff to increase the area of basement allowed beyond the footprint to something around 65 percent.
Councilmen Dave Tanner and Peter Mason, both members of the subcommittee that proposed 50 percent, dissented, as did a former subcommittee member, recently retired council member Ron Romines. Going beyond 50 percent "creates a dramatic increase in potential intensity of development," Mr. Romines said from the audience. "It doubles house size."
Resident Richard Draeger proposed that 75 percent of a basement be allowed outside the structure's footprint, arguing that residents "who don't want to demolish their homes" would be penalized by the 50 percent rule.
Councilmen Tom Livermore and Chris Shaw agreed on 75 percent. The more permissive number would be sensitive to owners of parcels constrained by topological features such as hillsides and bedrock, Mr. Shaw said.
Councilwoman Anne Kasten suggested 60 percent, while Mayor Deborah Gordon went with 65 percent.
Planning Commissioner Marilyn Voelke said she saw basement extension beyond the footprint as a red herring, that hardship cases could be handled with existing exception and variance processes, or even with a new process. "I'm kind of alarmed now that the compromise figure is moving up," she said. "What you're going to get are massive basements."
Ms. Voelke also objected to a suggestion by Mr. Draeger that basements be allowed under impervious surfaces, such as driveways and patios. New owners come in and may want to move patios and driveways, she said. "You're left with a basement without the 3 feet of dirt on top that allows things to grow," she said.
Driveway preferences do tend to change with owners, Planning Director Young said, noting that the language in the town's general plan sets a preference for minimizing site disturbance and grading.
Activity in setbacks
The sanctity of prohibiting construction within 10 feet of property lines made for some vigorous debate, particularly with respect to small lots in the Woodside Glens neighborhood.
"On truly constrained lots, we should be very flexible on letting people do things, especially below ground because that's the thing that's not going to impact the neighbors," said Dave Burow, a former councilman and not a Glens resident. "If you keep the 10-foot setback, you're taking a whole bunch of properties out of consideration for having basements, so just keep that in mind, or just tell those people: 'Just move. Sell your lot to your neighbor or take the write off because you're never going to really be able to enjoy your life here in Woodside.'"
Mr. Romines, a Glens resident, said he saw it differently. In addition to constrained lots, the Glens is traversed by a one-lane winding road and some homes have no parking spaces. Intensity of use is already an issue, he said. Another couple of bedrooms and a bathroom under an existing house will have a "huge, huge impact (and) makes a very bad situation much worse," he said.
There are lots of Glens residents who are living happy lives in small houses and who are "quite concerned about having houses on small lots become bigger," Ms. Voelke said.