An unprecedented number of people — around 250 — turned out for Atherton City Council's Tuesday, Jan. 31, meeting to make their voices heard amid a contentious process to plan for housing in town over the next eight years.
The council removed multifamily housing plans that were met with ire by residents, and softened changes to a lot on Oakwood Boulevard in Golden State Warriors' star Steph Curry's neighborhood.
After switching back and forth between different options over the last several weeks on the state-mandated plan, the council adopted a plan with the following changes:
• Nixed the higher-density overlay zones on El Camino Real and Valparaiso Avenue
• Kept its 280 backyard accessory dwelling units (ADUs)
• Changed a rezoning of 23 Oakwood Blvd. to a multifamily zoning overlay to allow for more flexibility in what's built on the site (which allows for it to remain as single-family housing even if it was sold, for example)
• Removed 17 lots slated to be upzoned along El Camino Real
The council held the roughly four-hour long meeting Tuesday afternoon as the town rushed to meet the Jan. 31 deadline to file updated housing element plans to the state's Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).
The town must plan for the development of 348 new housing units, per its 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which is a large jump from its allocation of 93 units during the previous eight-year cycle. Town officials fear lawsuits, fines and loss of local control of planning if the town doesn't create a compliant housing element.
"Somebody has to make the decision: Are we going to protect the town or open the town to lawsuits?" Mayor Bill Widmer said.
Staff had recommended the council adopt the following plan on Tuesday:
City Manager George Rodericks said two developers have already contacted him inquiring about the so-called builder's remedy, which allows for residential projects to move forward even if they do not comply with local development standards. These developers were the owner of 23 Oakwood Blvd. (David Arata) and Los Angeles-based real estate firm Mulholland Drive Company.
Significant pushback on new multifamily overlay on El Camino and Valparaiso
A plan to create a multifamily zoning overlay along El Camino Real and Valparaiso Avenue faced vocal opposition, with an hour of public comments consisting mainly of residents speaking against the idea. One Menlo Park resident who lives next to one of the proposed overlays said it would turn his quiet street into the traffic equivalent of exiting a stadium after a Golden State Warriors game.
The Atherton Planning Commission came up with the overlay as an alternative to upzoning 19 lots along El Camino Real. The commission recommended the entirety of El Camino, 88 properties, be part of an overlay zone on a wider range of properties that would permit development of up to 20 units per acre. Council member Stacy Miles Holland recused herself from the discussion on the El Camino Real zoning overlay because she lives within 500 feet of the site.
The Planning Commission also recommended a multifamily overlay zone on Valparaiso Avenue, which includes 22 properties, most of which are larger than a half acre, allowing up to 10 units per acre.
With the multifamily overlay zone, the current single-family regulations can remain in place, but property owners would have the option to develop their property as either a single-family home or more intensely under the multifamily development regulations.
23 Oakwood Blvd. site
Council members said they are concerned about the impacts of development at 23 Oakwood Blvd. on neighbors, but fear what could be built under the builder's remedy if they don't put in some standards themselves. The council previously opted to zone the property at 10 units per acre, but decided to create an overlay for the site. That way, if the owner sold the site it could be developed on a smaller scale if desired.
Warriors star Stephen Curry and his entrepreneur wife Ayesha Curry expressed their opposition to the plans in a letter to the town on Jan. 18.
Stephanie Sargent of Redwood City became emotional discussing the upzoning of the site, saying the town wanted to "destroy" her home.
"This is over my fence and yes, I'm NIMBY (not in my backyard), whatever everybody wants to call me, because it is over my fence. I will have people staring into my yard, into my bedroom window."
Diane Howard, a Redwood City council member, said she is concerned about the impact of the builder's remedy at 23 Oakwood and said it would have an adverse effects on the neighborhood.
"Please attempt to get the proposed housing element to HCD before the deadline today," she said.
The town had opted to upzone a 1.5-acre lot at 23 Oakwood Blvd. earlier this month, where there is currently a single-family home. The property owner plans to develop up to 16 townhouses with the town's guidelines.
The owner, Arata, wants to upzone his land and is interested in moving the project forward. Although he doesn't want to pursue a builder's remedy, he's well aware of state requirements of the town if the remedy is enacted, town staff said.
Council member Rick DeGolia said that if the town doesn't have a compliant housing element, the owner will build more than 10 units per acre. DeGolia said he would not support anything more than two-story buildings on this property and work to create standards for minimizing adverse impacts on neighbors, such as including screening.
Widmer said people have been sending him letters accusing him of knowing Arata and being in his pocket.
"I have no business interest with him," Widmer said, noting that he would not recuse himself from the vote because he used to be neighbors with Arata.
Doubts about viability of upzoning El Camino properties
The council opted to remove a plan to upzone 19 lots along El Camino Real for up to 20 units per acre after negative feedback from owners. This plan was unpopular, in part, because the town has stipulated that residents would not be able to rebuild their homes as single-family homes.
"Y'all came in your red shirts and said you're not going anywhere," Widmer said of the upzoning. "If you're not moving, then there's nothing that we can do about that and you know it makes no sense to do an upzone."
Resident Pam Silvaroli has voiced her opposition to the upzoning of the lots.
"Who knew I would have anything in common with Steph and Ayesha Curry?" she told the council. "I am faced, as he and his family are, and many others, with the horrific notion of losing our privacy and our space."
Staff contacted HCD to see if opposition from the property owners would be considered by HCD in the site evaluation, according to the staff report. HCD staff noted that letters stating that specific sites would not be viable because of property owner disinterest was "something they took very seriously." HCD told Atherton staff that some property owners may just be attempting to discourage the process.
"However, they would not be able to provide any specific feedback about sites or viability until they received the town's draft housing element as adopted by the town," staff noted.
The state has 60 days to review the town’s housing element and certify it as substantially compliant with state law. If the state deems the element is not compliant with state law, the town must revise it further.