Guest opinion: Who owns Atherton's urns? | October 24, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - October 24, 2007

Guest opinion: Who owns Atherton's urns?

by Randy and Lisa Lamb

Has the Atherton City Council gained so much control that they feel that they have authority over our personal property?

In the past few months, we have had a long and arduous interaction with the town of Atherton to secure approval for the relocation of two urns from our old home on Laburnum Road to our new home on Park Lane. Though both of the urns were in disrepair they had been a lovely part of our environment, and we wished to take them with us to our new house.

When we moved out of the Laburnum house, we were unclear whether our urns were subject to Ordinance No. 567 (adopted Oct. 18, 2006), requiring the "preservation of historical artifacts within the town of Atherton". Even though we didn't agree with the ordinance, we applied for a permit to move the urns to our new home. We filled out the application in good faith, assuming that since the ordinance was designed to keep artifacts within the town (and the urns would remain in Atherton), no issues would arise. Town staff agreed, telling us they foresaw no problems in getting the permit issued.

Following our application, town staff members prepared a report recommending that the Planning Commission approve our request, which they did in December 2006. However, contrary to the Planning Commission's vote, the City Council inexplicably denied our application. The arbitrary nature of this decision concerned us deeply, for ourselves as well as others who might find themselves in similar straits. We decided to challenge the council's decision, believing it was wrong as both a matter of law and policy.

We took the matter before the San Mateo County Superior Court. Some of the key facts we asked the court to consider:

First, the urns were on the property when we purchased our Laburnum Road home, they were lying on their sides and in disrepair, and we had them restored at our own expense.

Second, the urns were not included in the official inventory of the ordinance.

Third, although there was some thought that the urns might have been part of the Flood Estate, no one had demonstrated that they actually were.

Finally, after careful study by an expert paid for by the town, the urns were not found to be part of a historical setting, which might prevent us from moving them a couple of miles down the road.

On Aug. 7, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald ruled that the town of Atherton must set aside its decision prohibiting us from relocating our urns. He also directed the town to revisit a long list of problems with the ordinance (after which we might be required to reapply), and then awarded us a portion of our legal fees. Judge Buchwald added that the town's decision to refuse to allow us to move the urns was "clearly arbitrary and capricious." In short, the Town of Atherton made a mistake, and was directed fix it.

We appreciate the urns for what they are, not where they are. We covered the costs of restoring them, and sought only to move them from one home in Atherton to another. Does the town have the right to dictate what we can do with our personal property?

In the months to come, the City Council will consider changes to Ordinance 567 as directed by the court. To those who believe that council's attitude about "eminent domain" is wrong, we urge you to have an impact on the new ordinance: Attend as many meetings as you can, write to your council members, and let your voice be heard.

Randy and Lisa Lamb live on Park Lane in Atherton.


Posted by abc, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 24, 2007 at 12:04 am

BRAVO, Randy and Lisa. The court clearly made the right decision. It is unfortunate that the Atherton City Council put you through what must have been an aggravating experience. The unknown provenance of the urns and the lack of historical evidence should have been enough but the mis-guided council made a very bad decision.

We in Menlo Park are collectively also struggling with the question of what is historical or culturally relevant. A few in town, including our Mayor have decided that a poured concrete sixty year old theater is worthy of several million dollars of public tax expenditure to turn over for private use. Go figure.