Update: Woodside council approves limits on basement size, location


(This is an expanded version of a previously posted story.)

Woodside's municipal code has long specified limits on how much floor area a residence can have above ground, but below ground, there have been no limits on either the size or location of basements. The absence of regulations on basements, according to town staff, was compensation for limits on the mass of above-ground structures. This compact is now evolving.

The Town Council on April 26 voted in favor of an ordinance that limits the size of basements based on a formula to calculate the total volume of removed soil in cubic yards. The formula multiplies the square-foot floor area of the main residence by 12, and then divides that number by 27 to convert cubic feet to cubic yards.

Included under the ordinance: no more than 50 percent of a basement can be located outside the footprint of the main house above it; if the basement is 25 percent or less than the maximum allowed, a site development permit will not be required; and parts of a basement not under a structure will require a blanket of at least at least two and a half feet of soil.

The council's vote was 6-0 with Councilman Chris Shaw voting by phone and Councilman Dave Tanner absent. Before the ordinance becomes law, the council must vote on it again in another meeting. If a majority favors it, the ordinance will become law 30 days later.

An ordinance has been in the works for about a year, with much of the work done by a three-member council subcommittee consulting with Town Hall staff. Drafts were reviewed by the Architectural and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission and the council held six public hearings, five of them made necessary by significant changes.

The issue arose in the spring of 2015 when Planning Director Jackie Young brought to the council's attention a significant uptick in the number of basement applications as compared to previous years. The proposed basements were becoming increasingly sophisticated, including stand-alone basements, elaborate sunken patios, tunnels connecting underground rooms, and accessory living quarters, she said.

The ordinance allows full basements, including, according to one critic, full basements that also extend beyond the footprint of the house. The ordinance also allows sophisticated basements, accommodating, for example, a squash court with a 20-foot ceiling, but it would involve a trade off of breadth in exchange for that depth.

Pros and cons

Ahead of the April 26 meeting, the council received 14 emails in support of the latest draft of the ordinance and four opposed.

Resident and architect Steve Lubin, an ordinance critic, told the council before its April 26 deliberations that his chief concern expressed at the previous meeting -- the overall quantity of excavated soil the ordinance allows -- had not been addressed by the council.

He said the formula should use a multiplying factor of 8 -- rather than 12 -- to reflect the standard depth of basements. And the maximum depth allowed -- 20 feet -- is too deep and should be 14, he said.

The town could accommodate a multiplier of 12 and a depth of 20 feet, but they should be exceptions and not the rule, he said.

Also speaking in favor of a more restrictive ordinance was former councilman Ron Romines.

Resident Greg Raleigh chided the council for backing away from a previous provision that would have allowed 65 percent of a basement to be located outside the footprint of the main house. Instead, the council went with the 50 percent figure recommended by the council subcommittee that drafted the ordinance and preferred by the Planning Commission.

"I think we have worked very hard on this," Councilwoman Anne Kasten said. "It's easy to have passions run really high in this room." She asked that residents talk more with council members.

At the request of Councilman Daniel Yost, who had expressed a preference for 65 percent in a February straw poll, Ms. Young examined town records and found that five residents over the past 15 years had built basements with 65 percent of the structure located outside the house footprint.

All five basements were located on properties of at least three acres, Ms. Young said.

Mr. Yost told the council that a friend of his had asked him if such extended basements were a thing. "It sort of seems like it's not a thing," he said.

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