Billy McNair, the owner of 1976 Menalto Ave., a lot in the Willows neighborhood, applied in May to build a duplex consisting of two single-family, two-story homes separated by a parking court. He asked for a use permit with variances because of the lot's size and layout, as well as permission to remove three heritage trees.
In November, after holding a study session earlier last fall, the Planning Commission approved the permit and city staff signed off on removing the trees. Those opposed to the project promptly appealed to the council to reverse the approvals. The applicant also appealed to the council after the Environmental Quality Commission, which handles appeals of heritage tree removals, upheld removing two trees, but declined to allow the third, a magnolia tree in good health, to be cut down.
Although at least one neighbor emailed the council to support the project, 22 others opposed it. As presented at the Feb. 13 council meeting, their concerns included where parking for the duplex would go, but focused on the fate of the heritage trees at 1976 Menalto Ave. as well as an oak tree next door whose roots stretch across property lines.
In his rebuttal, Mr. McNair said, "We've looked at countless alternatives, none of them are viable, and they also don't meet the direction we were given by the Planning Commission, on which we relied on when designing the project." He pointed out that the lot's substandard size and odd shape means building even a single-family home — such as the one currently on the lot — requires variances.
As for the trees on the property, Mr. McNair said "no reasonable and feasible alternatives" would allow preservation of all three, while efforts could be made to guard the roots of the oak tree next door during construction.
Kirsten Keith, who served as a planning commissioner before being elected to council, said she respected the Planning Commission's work, but felt uncomfortable with their decision.
"I think it's tough because you've got 22 neighbors" who dislike the plan, some of whom had lived there for 36 years with those trees, she said. Ms. Keith, using the Matteson development at 389 El Camino Real as an example of productive collaboration between residents and developers, suggested Mr. McNair return to the drawing board.
Before casting the dissenting vote, Mayor Peter Ohtaki said that given the Planning Commission's and city staff's input, he respected their expertise and thought that changing the decision now created doubt for other applicants of what they can expect when they develop a project in Menlo Park.
Vice Mayor Ray Mueller commented that it went against the character of the neighborhood to pack two residences onto a tiny lot.