At a public hearing attended by some 30 members of the public, the council deliberated for a couple of hours over an ordinance proposed by the Planning Commission that would also allow second units in all zoning districts, and allow Town Hall staff to review and approve most of them without oversight by the Architectural and Site Control Commission.
There's much that the new ordinance would not change, including policies on the adjusted maximum floor area for a property, the maximum amount of impervious surface allowed, the length of setbacks, maximum structure heights, and requirements for landscaping, lighting and materials.
Among the 13 members of the public who spoke, many opposed the proposed option of setting the maximum floor area at 1,700 square feet, while others warned against separate addresses and utilities as advancing the possibility of Portola Valley becoming a community of subdivisions. Other issues included fire safety as it relates to second units, separate driveways and when they would be allowed, and whether owners should be required to occupy one of the homes.
The council reached consensus on 1,700 square feet as being too high a maximum floor area, though they directed Town Hall staff to conduct more analysis, including checking into how floor area could be tied to the size of the main house. Staff will also look into how nearby communities handle the issue of absentee owners of second units.
On the question of distinguishing second units from main houses through the use of different addresses, the council was unanimous in favor of the idea, noting that firefighters prefer separate addresses in emergency situations and that they would not lead to subdivision.
"The subdivision argument ... There's nothing to really support that," Mayor Ann Wengert said. "I think we are a long way from subdivision."
Councilman John Richards, an architect, spoke about affordability, noting that his daughter lives in a second unit he built, and that she pays a low rent because he built it himself. "I know that's an unusual situation, but we need to have those opportunities (for affordable housing) out there in whatever form we can manage," he said. "If they end up being expensive, that's just the reality of the day."
"I think our goal is to create inventory," Councilman Jeff Aalfs said. "I hate to say this, but $4,000 a month is getting to be affordable housing in the Bay Area. ... if we had a bunch of $4,000-a-month rentals in Portola Valley, they'd get filled up."
Resident Forrest Linebarger expressed support for a floor-area maximum greater than 1,550 square feet. He said he'd like to help his parents move back to town and provide them with space to move around in comfort as they age.
Also in support of a larger maximum was resident Greg Franklin, who said that 1,700 square feet is accommodating to someone downsizing from a house of 3,000 or 4,000 square feet.
But former mayor Steve Toben questioned the appeal of 1,700 square feet, given that it would cost the homeowner $1 million to build at the current construction rate of $600 per square foot. At the private Sequoias retirement community in town, he said, apartments range from 560 square feet to a maximum of 1,120. That maximum aligns with a state standard of 1,200 square feet, he noted.
He noted that his 300-square-foot cottage in the Woodside Highlands neighborhood has been rented to Stanford University graduate students, a park ranger, and now to a resident of Tracy who stays there four nights a week.
Former mayor Jon Silver and residents Kori Anne Bagowski and Michael Katz all opposed a 1,700-square-foot maximum. Both Bagowski and Katz noted that a dwelling of that size does not warrant a designation of low-income housing.
"That's a huge amount of space ... larger than a house," Katz said.
"I still don't know what problem you're trying to solve," he told the council. "It doesn't seem like anything has been thought out to a conclusion and I think it should be before we pass anything that's going to change (things)."
Bagowski weighed in on separate addresses, saying that it leads to properties being subdivided. "I'm (in Portola Valley) because I don't see my neighbors and I'm not squished in," she said.
Resident Ed Reines warned about the risk of inadvertently inviting Airbnb into town, a trend that he said is growing. Separate addresses, utilities and driveways "are essentially dividing the property the way that you would do it if you wanted to profit," he said.
"You don't want people coming in and trying to monetize properties, essentially split them and then Airbnb both of them," Reines said. "If there's a food-fight about Airbnb in this town and people (don't) know how we got there, it's not going to be pretty."