The four-year-long construction of a luxurious house in Old Palo Alto has sparked renewed complaints from frustrated neighbors and prompted the city to assess whether expired building permits are a large problem in town.
The remodel of a nearly 6,000-square-foot, stucco house at 1849 Webster St. has been ongoing since 2004.
For neighbor Mike Braun, the noise, trucks and dust beg the question of whether there should be a time limit to construction.
"They certainly have a right to do [construction for some period of time, but after four years, enough is enough," he said.
Braun e-mailed the City Council, city manager and other officials for help in mid-June.
"I am writing to ask what I can do to get relief from this disaster," he wrote.
The construction has also disturbed neighbors Larry and Jeanne Aufmuth.
"The incessant hammering, inconsistent work hours, construction mess ... is too much," Jeanne Aufmuth wrote in an e-mail. "I am utterly disheartened this project has been allowed to destroy the ambience of our neighborhood."
Yet the debate over 1849 Webster is not a new one. In 2002, when owners Elizabeth and Jamie Wong first applied to expand their property, neighbors protested the proposed house size.
The debate became rancorous: The Wongs received a threatening letter and were subject to racially motivated barbs during the application process.
The housing plan came before the council, was rejected, modified and ultimately gained approval in 2003.
Today, the nearly 6,000-square-foot house sits behind a fence shrouded in black tarp — but its unfinished roof ranges high into view.
In response to Braun, city officials looked into the situation and discovered the Wongs' building permits had lapsed.
The garage permit expired around August 2007, and the residence permit expired around January 2008, according to Chief Building Official Larry Perlin.
When notified, the Wongs applied to renew their permits, and an inspector visited the site this week, Perlin said.
After talking to the inspector who visited the site this week, Perlin said he got the impression the Wongs lost sight of permit renewal in the midst of interior furnishing.
"Almost without exception there's a very valid reason for why a permit has expired," he said.
As to whether the city should have been more vigilant in monitoring the Webster house, Perlin said it's not the city's role to constantly check on thousands of permitted projects. The assumption is that owners will renew permits by scheduling regular inspections because they otherwise face fines, he said.
Nonetheless, Perlin said uncovering the expired permits made him wonder if the city could notify owners when a permit expired, perhaps by generating an automatic mailing.
He has asked staff to compile a list of expired permits to assess the size of the problem. The list could help him decide whether to pursue a new process, he said, but added he wasn't certain there are enough staff resources.
Elizabeth Wong declined to comment on just how the permits expired.
She cited the quality of her house as the reason for long-term construction, adding, "It is not unreasonable for a house to take four or five years to build."
Inspector Bud Starmer described the house like a museum, with elaborate tile-work, painted ceilings, murals and detailed carpentry, according to Perlin.
Elizabeth Wong said her family plans to move in soon, declining to state when.
Even before construction wraps, it could be a record-breaker, according to Curtis Williams, the city's assistant planning director.
"I'm not aware of any that have gone on for four and a half years. Most homes are finished within a couple of years," he said.
Although tempers regarding the unfinished house are heated, Braun's goal isn't to increase rancor on his tree-lined, otherwise peaceful street, he said.
"I'm not interested in being antagonistic towards my neighbors. I just want the project finished," he said.