Fall Real Estate 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000 & Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

How to protect yourself and your neighborhood How to protect yourself and your neighborhood (September 22, 2000)

Under current building laws in Palo Alto, homeowners have little say in what types of homes get built in their neighborhoods, providing those new homes comply with existing codes.

That could soon change if the city accepts the suggestions of the Future of Single Family Neighborhoods Advisory Group, which has been studying an overhaul of residential buildings laws since January. If those suggestions become law, residents could challenge many aspects of new homes, including whether they violate the privacy of neighbors and whether the architecture blends in with the surrounding area.

Currently, however, the only way that residents can protect their rights is by staying informed of city laws as well as what's happening in their neighborhoods.

Here are some suggestions on how to do that if a home in your neighborhood has been torn down and you fear what may replace it. These pointers were provided by resident Tom Ashton, who researched the issue a few years ago when a large home was built next to his house in the Midtown area.

Acquaint yourself with what can legally be built. Among the valuable sources of information are several publications put out by the city of Palo Alto. They include "The Palo Alto Zoning Guidebook"; the "Single-Family Residential Design Guidelines for Palo Alto"; "Actual Zoning," Chapter 18, at the Palo Alto library; "Applying for a Home Improvement Exception" (city booklet); city publication on fences.

Move quickly after someone files for a building permit. At this time, several documents become public record that will keep you informed of plans for the property. Among them are a completed R-1 plan-check form; tree-disclosure document; the demolition permit and building permit; numerous other documents may be relevant.

Stay in touch with the city's Development Center (former Coldwell Banker building on northwest corner of Bryant Street and Hamilton Avenue) to make sure you know when architectural plans are filed. These plans cannot be photocopied, but they can be traced.

Carefully review the architectural drawings. Many residents have found that city technicians on occasion err in determining whether the plans meet code. This is especially true for floor/area ratio, setbacks and height limits.

If you spot errors or suspect problems, promptly write letters of complaint. Address these to the first-line manager, but copy them to higher-ups, including the city manager and city attorney if necessary. Complaint letters are confidential. Be specific in your complaints. You won't get anywhere, for example, by writing "The house is way too big. Can you get them to make it smaller?" Keep in mind that building applicants are in many ways the city's customer. They pay thousands of dollars to the city during the permit and building process.

Once building starts, observe carefully, making sure the construction corresponds to the architectural plans. Do not assume builders are building to approved plans.

--Marc Igler