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Menlo Park commissioners question council's decision to overturn their approval of duplex

Original post made on Mar 13, 2013

After the Menlo Park Planning Commission unanimously said yes to plans for a duplex at 1976 Menalto Ave., the City Council said no. City officials usually accept such differences of opinion with equanimity. But not this time.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 10:26 AM

Comments (14)

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Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 13, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Some Planning Commissioners seem to be taking it personally that the City Council repealed their decision in this case. But consider: if the Council simply perpetually rubber-stamped the Planning Commission's decisions, what recourse of appeal would residents have? Also, we should remember that it is rare for the Council to overturn a decision of the Planning Commission, and not in the least a signal of lack of respect for the Commission's work. Rather it is the responsibility of the council to listen to the residents and protect their interests. The council did so after hearing from some 20 residents. Council members understood the residents' issues well--in fact, Council member Keith had been a Planning Commissioner herself, and acknowledged that sometimes these decisions are difficult to make. Nor should anyone worry that this single repeal of a Planning Commission's approval for a development on a small substandard lot will somehow drastically affect or discourage developments in the future or somehow set a precedent for the Council to habitually overturn all Planning Commission decisions. Such fears are groundless, and dwelling on them tends to obscure the fact that our system worked quite well. It is an important part of our representative process that residents may appeal to the City Council, as these residents did, and that the Council use its authority to overturn a decision if it sees fit to do so. That is our local government working.

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Posted by Frugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 13, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Maybe, just maybe, we'll have a council that doesn't approve every project that comes along. We can only hope.

(Earlier Councils appointed the pro-development Planning Commission. It's time to clean house!)

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Posted by One of the Appellants
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm

While I deeply appreciate the efforts our Planning Commission puts forth volunteering on our behalf, I will have to take issue with the statement that "the applicant made all requested changes and incorporated neighbors' feedback" when in fact this was not the case--only very minor cosmetic modifications were made. The three (and only remaining after a scraping of the lot by the developer) heritage trees were unanimously voted for removal as well as the concerns pertaining to the heritage tree on a neighboring lot was NOT addressed by the revisions. In the end, the City Council seemed to recognize that the residents that surround this site would all be giving up quality of life in exchange for a developers deep pockets. Yet another biased article that is quite slanted. Deeply disappointing. At least other newspaper journalists tried to be more balanced.

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Posted by Frugal
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Right on "One of the Appellants"!

I'm surprised your last two sentences were even printed.

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Posted by Cathy Moran
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Part of American political process includes the right of appeal. It should not surprise the Planning Commission that their decision was appealed. We have it from a member of the Council that it happened when she was a member of the Planning Commission.

As a neighbor to the parcel in question, my sense of the Planning Commission's approach was that it was heavily slanted toward approving building. This lot is substandard for a single home, and yet the Commission approved building two homes, cutting down three heritage trees and endangering an adjoining, magnificent live oak, in furtherance of the developers profits.

It was refreshing for the City Council to harken back to its mission of preserving neighborhoods. This project is not consistent with this neighborhood.

It needs to be repeated that while the developer may have stood quietly while neighbors expressed their concerns about his plans, he was not open to their input, which evenextended to sketching other configurations for the lot to accommodate 2 units. The developer's response to virtually every suggestion was "can't do it".

I appreciate the open mind and the concern for the neighborhood evidenced by the City Council.

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Posted by Contradiction in decisions
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Hmm... the city council members didn't actually go and view this site prior to their decision, but did listen to neighbors who presented false information (old petitions circulated prior to redesign and signed by children to inflate numbers).

Did they consider that they, the city council, are also supposedly "in favor" of secondary dwelling units when it comes to the housing element? (Except not in the Willows?)

Did they consider this lot is, and has been for decades, zoned for 2 units?

Did they consider that just last year they granted an adjacent neighbor to this property a secondary dwelling unit with a 1 foot side setback (after the planning commission denied it), where this new proposed two home project has a 10 feet side set back?

No, they went with the easy and ever popular "lets listen to who screams loudest at the hearing" method of governing. I look forward to watching them when the Stanford project is up for their approval.

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Posted by Screamer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm

I don't know who made the right decision, the commission or the council, but I agree with Contradiction: the council has always been prone to making decisions based on the level of noise in the chambers. For years, whenever the council voted on nursery school fees, parents would fill the chambers with pajama-clad tots in tow. And the council would decide not to raise the fees even though many parents lived in Atherton and the majority were not MP residents!

And anyone who claims that the PC is pro-development is not paying attention. There are a couple of notable anti-developer commissioners, with others who believe that property owners should, in general, be able to develop their land. Only two of the commissioners are almost always pro-development, but on a 7-member body, that's far from a majority.

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Posted by long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 14, 2013 at 10:11 am

This council seems to lack the ability to cut through the misinformation and noise generated by 'neighbors'.

This case and the case of Sinnot's driveway replacement on Louise street involved an enormous amount of misinformation and outright fraud generated by neighbors. Misinformation by fabricating and exaggerating negative impacts and fraud in the petition process.

The council simply does not have the time to thoroughly analyze land use issues and has taken the stance of 'I'm not sure what it is but if 20 people bothered to speak against it they must be right.'

Pretty weak leadership.

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Posted by Another Long Time Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 14, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I agree with Long Time Resident.
The developer Billy McNair has every right to develop the property he purchased to the fullest extent possible. The NIMBYism of the neighbors is hindering progress in Menlo Park. What relevance does it have that Billy McNair bought this 8,000 sqft property with a single family residence in Menlo Park from some out-of-state heirs for $350K? Why do the neighbors bring that up? Are they jealous that a business man made a good investment? This is a free country with a free market. Mr McNair bought the property and has the right to develop it. The planning commission allowed Mr McNair to go 10 feet closer to the neighbors in the front and 10 feet closer to the neighbors in the back than usually allowed. It is Mr McNairs right to ask for these variances and he received them. These variances are required to allow Mr McNair to build two homes on that lot. Menlo Park needs housing and Mr McNair is bringing new homes to Menlo Park. Why is the City Council not seeing that neighbors like the ones in the Willows keep Menlo Park from moving forward? Why should Mr McNair build only one 2-story single family residence if he could build two of them with the variances he received from the Planning Commission? We need more housing in Menlo Park. If that means Mr McNair has to remove all heritage trees on the property as he requested and as was approved by the Planning Commission then the council should not interfere. Why did the Environmental Quality Commission also interfere with the Planning Commission and grant the appeal of the neighbors in favor of heritage trees? Once the planning commission approves a plan neither the City Council nor the Environmental Quality Commission should be allowed to interfere. We need to streamline the process in Menlo Park and make it easy for developers to build new homes. NIMBYism by neighbors who say they want to protect their way of life or the heritage trees or the setbacks that are outlined in the zoning ordinance is just that: NIMBYism. It is selfish and prevents new families from moving to Menlo Park.

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Posted by Henry Fox
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Yes, we have a right of appeal.
Yes, Council members have much on their plate.
But note: The Planning Commissioners devoted a study session to the 1976 Menalto project and in addition unanimously approved the final plan. lots of time and effort here.
While some of the Council members did not even visit the project before rejecting it.
AS for a petition, best to assume signatories were told a skewed story and signed to please the people circulating it. Any reasons by Council members for rejecting or granting an appeal should be explicit and well reasoned, for petitioners to understand.
I hope the Planning Commission will call this appeal back.

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Posted by Nothing New Here, really
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 14, 2013 at 2:33 pm

The Planning Commission needs to settle down (and grow a pair) - this happens sometimes and is nothing new.

When there are appeals to the elected governing body, there are occasionally times when that body overturns a Planning Commission vote, even a lopsided one, the other way. Council is a policy making body and is more accustomed to taking into account a wide variety considerations (neighborhood liviability policy, and being responsive to the public) whereas the Planning Commission (IMHO) tends to get "entrained" into more technical considerations of zoning ordinance details (front and side etbacks, daylight planes, floor area ratios, etc). Both functions are important, and generally the PC does not get overruled. But sometimes something (especially on a nonconforming lot) really just doesn't fit and reasonable minds can differ.

Really people -- all the applicant needs to do is a redesigned project. He is not being denied the right to develop. But his design DOES need to fit with the character of the neighborhood do more to work around the heritage trees. If that means he can't squeeze two houses onto this lot, and instead can only build one, that was the risk he took.

It is, however, too bad that the heritage tree evaluation by the EQC doesn't happen before the PC meeting and then the PC can practice what it preaches and respect their sister ocmmission's judgment, as well.

One has to wonder about Ray Meuller's process here -- he made a vote to reverse the PC and then the next meeting asked the Council to reconsider that vote. Although that's his right - let's hope it doesn't become a patters because that's a bad pattern to get into and could waste a lot of Council time. Ray seems to want to be liked by everyone, and had a wide range of supporters across the ideological spectrum. Some of his key campaigners were outspoken Planning Commissioners in the ex post war of words over this project. Is he being swayed unduly by them? And/or perhaps he's being swayed by the developer? When an elected official reaches a considered decision on the Council dais, presumably s/he is making it after carefully considered deliberation. Let's put Ray on a "cajones watch" but hope he learns the RIGHT lesson from this: Putting your finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing is not a good approach for city land use planning decisions where you have to keep the long range in mind as well.

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Posted by process works
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 15, 2013 at 4:30 pm

It is important that there is an appeal process. Since the Council sets policy, not the Commission, it is important for the Council to be clear about the policy issues underlying its decisions. When the Council overturns a Commission's decision, it should be clear about why. Nevertheless, each commissioner has the duty to interpret the rules to the best of their ability. It is up to the Council to approve new rules if the existing ones aren't adequate.

There aren't many appeals and not all appeals result in overturning a commission decision. The process works pretty well!

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Posted by Property Rights
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 16, 2013 at 9:09 am

This property is inaccessible except for a long, narrow driveway that is blocked with a locked, chain-link fence. It is impossible to see the full property from the street. Apparently people are saying that Cline and Keith, though invited multiple times, never visited the site, but I don't know if that's true. Keith claims that she knows the property from living in the Willows so long, but she never explained when or why she went down that driveway. People are also saying that Carlton told McNair that her first vote was in error after she visited the property, and she would vote for reconsideration, but when the time came, she remained silent. Ohtaki was apparently threatened with the media circus created by his relationship with McNair; his real estate broker in the past. I don't know if all of these things are true. The Almanac should investigate this. If any of it is true, then the system is broken. I agree Mueller's process wasn't perfect, but at least he displayed the courage to be fair. Property values in Menlo Park, and the financial investment needed to develop property, is too valuable to be manipulated by political self interests.

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Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Mar 16, 2013 at 1:55 pm

8,000 square foot is small, but like the idea of cottage homes, that are for small numbers of people. 1 or 2 person house holds, 1 to 2 bedrooms with 1 bath, small walled yard, better blend in with surroundings. Low ceiling heights, 2nd floors designed into roof, smaller windows, use of skylights. Use of hedges, trees and bushes to shield, light, buildings, noise.

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