Portola Valley makes it easier to add second living units | March 20, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - March 20, 2019

Portola Valley makes it easier to add second living units

by Barbara Wood

Fulfilling its goal of encouraging more housing in Portola Valley, the Town Council on March 13 unanimously gave preliminary approval to a new ordinance offering more flexibility to add additional living units on properties.

The new ordinance allows additional living units in all the town's zones, including nonresidential, as long as specific criteria for access in an emergency are met.

In most cases, the size of the units will max out at 1,200 square feet. On lots that are 3.5 acres or larger, the property owner can have one 1,500-square-foot unit, or two units that meet town regulations. Units inside an existing structure can reach up to 1,700 square feet if they meet certain criteria.

Previously, second units were allowed only on residential parcels of an acre or larger unless they were inside an existing structure. The new regulations tie the maximum size of the units to the adjusted maximum floor area (AMFA) allowed for the site, which means the new rules don't increase the amount of square footage currently allowed on a property.

The adjusted maximum floor area is calculated for each parcel based on its size, average slope, existence of soils prone to landslides and location in a flood plain, and includes all structures on a property.

For those who have less than 1,200 square feet of unused adjusted maximum floor area, a new second unit can't exceed the unused AMFA.

The ordinance permits individual addresses for second units, which will allow for separate utility connections and mail delivery; they can also have a separate driveway if it meets strict criteria for town approval.

The new rules do not require owners to live on site to rent out a second unit, but specify that the main house and its second unit can be rented simultaneously only if one lease covers both units. No units may be rented for fewer than 30 days.

The ordinance says its purpose is to:

• Create new housing units while respecting the existing character of the town.

• Provide housing that responds to residents' changing needs, household sizes, and increasing housing costs; and provide accessible housing for seniors and people with disabilities.

• Offer environmentally friendly housing choices with less average space per person and smaller associated carbon footprints.

• Promote affordable housing for people who work in town.

As in earlier meetings on the issue, the council heard from several residents. Nan Shostak said she worried about increasing the density in the town. "Portola Valley is environmentally fragile," she said, and at risk in an earthquake. She also asserted that units of up to 1,700 square feet, which the town had been considering, would not be affordable.

Robert Shostak said the opportunity to build more housing units could also be seen as "a magnet for developers."

But resident Bruce Roberts argued that larger units should be allowed inside existing structures, citing his own existing 1,632-square-foot unit in the lower story of his home. "There's a huge difference between internal and external" living units, he said.

Longtime resident George Andreini said he was afraid the new ordinance is "a sweeping change to what the town of Portola Valley used to be." He said he is afraid money will motivate building second units and "it compromises what Portola Valley stands for."

Those fears may have been alleviated by the council's unanimous consensus to cap the size of most of the town's second units at 1,200 square feet. Council member John Richards, who is an architect, showed floor plans of two- and three-bedroom homes that were 1,200 square feet or less. "1,200 square feet is not a small space," he said.

Council member Craig Hughes said, "I think retaining the flexibility is probably important," and advocated choosing a cap size on the low end while not ruling out a future increase.

Council member Maryann Derwin said she has a 750-square-foot second unit and "it seems really spacious to me."

"I think people are happier in smaller spaces," she said. "You have less stuff."


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