When a group of Fairmeadow residents launched an effort two years ago to ban new two-story buildings in their Eichler neighborhood, 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, a split Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission ruled Wednesday night that without a clear consensus, a new ban on two-story buildings would be premature.
The commission voted not to proceed with the new "single-story overlay district" in Fairmeadow but asked staff to conduct a fresh survey of the neighborhood. Both proponents and opponents of the new overlay district would help staff craft the language in this survey.
The petition for the overlay was proposed by residents in a 127-home section of the Fairmeadow neighborhood, which includes 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 this subset of the neighborhood supporting the new overlay district.
Proponents of the new overlay argued that their boxy, glass-heavy Eichler homes lose charm when neighbor builds two-story buildings next to them. The taller buildings loom over the boxy one-story Eichlers, killing the neighborhood's consistent look and residents' privacy, petitioners contended.
Anne Knight, one of the circulators of the petition, said tall buildings that go up next to the Eichlers run counter to the Eichler philosophy. Knight she said she appreciates property owners wanting to do as they please with their properties, but when their actions adversely affect their neighbors' quality of life, "We need to think what's best for the whole community."
But many neighbors begged to differ. Some argued in letters and during Wednesday's meeting that the 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 a million dollars, 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. In September, the city mailed out a survey to all 300 houses in the entire Fairmeadow neighborhood, which also includes Roosevelt Circle and a portions 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 municipal code, the overlay proposal needs the support of 60 percent of the property owners before it could be adopted. Commissioner Susan Fineberg argued that because the original survey 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 more debate.