Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 2, 2010

Eichler community divided over two-story houses

Neighbors split over proposed ban of tall buildings; planning commission orders new survey

by Gennady Sheyner

When a group of Fairmeadow residents launched an effort two years ago to ban new two-story buildings in their Eichler neighborhood in south Palo Alto, they had no idea they'd be setting off a bitter debate surrounding property rights and privacy.

After hearing from both proponents and opponents of the proposal Wednesday night, a split Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission ruled that without a clear consensus, a ban on new two-story buildings would be premature.

The commission voted not to proceed with the "single-story overlay district" in Fairmeadow but asked staff to conduct a fresh survey of the neighborhood, which is bounded by East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. Both proponents and opponents of the new overlay district are to help staff craft the language in the survey.

The petition for the overlay was proposed by residents in a 127-home section of Fairmeadow — Starr King Circle, Lindero Drive and Redwood Circle. Last year, the residents presented the planning commission with a petition showing 72 percent of the property owners in the subset of the neighborhood supported an overlay district.

Proponents argued that their boxy, glass-laden Eichler homes lose charm when a neighbor builds a two-story building next door. The taller buildings loom over the modest one-story Eichlers with their floor-to-ceiling windows, ruining the neighborhood's visual consistency and residents' privacy, petitioners contended.

Anne Knight, one of the circulators of the petition, said two-story buildings juxtaposed with one-story homes run counter to the Eichler philosophy. Knight said she supports letting property owners do as they please, provided their actions don't have a negative impact on neighbors.

"We need to think what's best for the whole community," Knight told the commission Wednesday.

But many neighbors begged to differ. Some argued in letters and during Wednesday's meeting that a new overlay district would effectively strip them of their property rights and bring down their property values. A few characterized their neighbors' effort to ban two-story houses as selfish and inconsiderate. Others said they have no immediate plans to build up but said they'd like to reserve that option to accommodate their growing families.

"I want new families to move into my community, and I want them to have a choice," said Anna Thayer, another Fairmeadow resident. "When they buy a home for $1 million, they should have the right to do what they want to do with that home."

The city's effort last year to gauge the neighborhood's opinion further muddled the debate. Last September, the city mailed out a survey to all 300 houses in the entire Fairmeadow neighborhood, which also includes Roosevelt Circle and a portion of Bryant Street and South Court. Only 137 people responded to the city survey, with 73 property owners (24 percent) supporting a single-story overlay and 64 (21 percent) opposing it.

A few residents told the commission they were confused by the survey and weren't sure what they were voting for. Some said they never received it.

Under the city's municipal code, the overlay proposal needs the support of 60 percent of the property owners before it can be adopted. Commissioner Susan Fineberg argued that because the original survey of the neighborhood's subset showed 72 percent in favor of the overlay, the commission should honor their wishes and create the new zone in the smaller, 127-house area.

"I don't like processes that are divisive, I'm sorry it happened already in this neighborhood, but there's never going to be a consensus," Fineberg said. "Our municipal code, our laws, don't say, 'Everyone has to agree or you don't get this.'"

But her proposal to proceed with the overlay district in the smaller area failed by a 3-3 vote, with Eduardo Martinez and Arthur Keller supporting her idea and Daniel Garber, Samir Tuma and Greg Tanaka voting against it.

"I do not oppose furthering a single-story overlay for this particular area; I'm happy to entertain that," Garber said. "But I'm unwilling to do that if it creates division and questions and confrontation between neighbors."

Tuma proposed not creating the new zone overlay until residents come back with their own survey proving that they have a clear consensus. Keller suggested that staff work with both sides of the debate to craft and circulate the survey, a proposal that passed 4-2, with Tuma and Tanaka voting against it.

Once completed, the survey will return to the planning commission for further discussion.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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