Kathleen Jason-Moreau knows that in a dense city like Palo Alto total privacy is impossible to come by. But the Alma Street resident believes a mistake by city planners will force her family to live under a neighbor's constant gaze.
At issue is a new house whose plans the city approved last year and that is now under construction. Jason-Moreau is preparing for a legal battle with the city to protect her family and her neighbors.
City officials approved a two-story home adjacent to Jason-Moreau's in May 2009 but revisited it this year, after Jason-Moreau's neighbor, Anna Teeples, discovered the city erred in approving the plan with a 20-foot setback. The city's zoning ordinance requires buildings to be set back 24 feet from the property line in the area around Alma and Churchill Avenue.
City planners acknowledged the error and worked with the property owner, Lall Jain, to move the location of the new house by 4 feet and bring it into zoning compliance. The city approved the revised plans in early July.
Shortly after the city made the correction, construction began. In late August, builders installed second-floor framing for the development, which also features a separate studio. That's when Jason-Moreau said she realized the 4-foot correction brought the new home closer to hers. As a result, she said, she has "lost any and all privacy."
Jason-Moreau complained about the new building's mass and configuration in a letter to Planning Director Curtis Williams, City Manager James Keene and the City Council. The revision to plans, she wrote, "was granted without notice and a chance to be heard by the neighbor most impacted, which would be me." She told the Weekly the city's approval constitutes "gross negligence" and that she has hired a lawyer, David Lanferman of the San Francisco-based firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, to help her keep the project's impacts to a minimum.
Williams said the city and the property owner made a "good-faith effort" to address Jason-Moreau's concerns. A 4-foot-deep balcony that was previously planned for the property has been eliminated and replaced with a 1-foot-deep "decorative balcony." Williams said Jain had also agreed to build a "side wall" on the balcony and to use "obscure glass" windows in the home's bedroom. These windows would open away from Jason-Moreau's property.
Beyond these measures, Williams said, there is little the city can do. The building is consistent with the city's zoning code and with approved plans, Williams said.
"They haven't done anything wrong," Williams said. "They're building to the plan."
But Jason-Moreau said she's not satisfied with the city's response and may seek a court order to stop the construction.
"I look at this from my back door and ask, 'How did the city allow this to happen?'" she said.