Fairmeadow residents to retake housing survey

Questionnaire to ask if homeowners in Palo Alto neighborhood want single-story ordinance

Residents in the Fairmeadow neighborhood of Palo Alto appear to be nearly evenly split over whether a "single-story overlay" zone should be applied to their area -- and will be re-surveyed by the city in October.

About 20 residents met with city planning staff members at Cubberley Community Center on a muggy Tuesday night (Sept. 28) to discuss a survey city officials plan to mail to 300 Fairmeadow homeowners in October.

The single-story overlay has generated intense debate over several years in several of the sprawling areas of Palo Alto dominated by Eichler-style homes. The zone initially was intended to protect residents' backyard privacy and prevent large "McMansions" from dominating a block.

In Fairmeadow, 127 Palo Alto residents have been waiting since June 2008 for city or denial of their request to keep homes in a portion of their subdivision as single-story only.

City planners sent out a survey in January 2009 to determine how much interest is really there. More than 18 months later, another survey to gauge neighborhood sentiment is about to be launched -- staff said response was too low and Palo Alto Planning and Transportation commissioners deemed the first survey too complicated to provide meaningful results.

Residents complained that the city is still failing to communicate clearly what the zoning change really means.

The ordinance, known as a single-story overlay, or SSO, would limit homes to a single story of not more than 17 feet.

Many residents on Tuesday asked the same question: Does anyone even know what "single-story overlay" means when applied to Fairmeadow?

The overlay could encompass all or part of the Fairmeadow tract, which is bounded by East Meadow Drive, Charleston Road, Alma Street and a school. The zoning modification would not affect architectural style, according to Amy French, manager of current planning. Although some cities, such as Sunnyvale, have ordinances to preserve the Eichler style, Palo Alto does not. Homes could be rebuilt or remodeled in any style, from techno-commercial to Tudor mansion, she said. But under the overlay zone the residences could not be looming McMansions, as have been built in other Palo Alto neighborhoods.

Yet the complexities are broader than just the ordinance itself.

Even if residents want the overlay, the Planning and Transportation Commission might not recommend that it cover the entire tract. The City Council also could vote to limit its scope to a smaller portion of the neighborhood, and residents could also ask for their block or area to opt out of the overlay, staff said.

Residents at last night's meeting were divided on whether they want a single-story restriction. Planning commissioners complicated the matter when they instructed staff to survey not just the 127 original petitioners but all 300 homeowners, which expanded the original overlay petition beyond the Starr King vicinity to include Starr King Circle, Lindero Drive, Wright Place, Carlson Circle and sections of Redwood and Roosevelt circles, proponents said.

At least 60 percent of homeowners must want the overlay, with at least 85 percent of the homes to be single story, Jason Nortz, a city planner, said. Fully 95 percent of Fairmeadow homes are single story, with only 14 being two stories and one in the permit process.

Response to the first survey was weak, which was sent to homeowners in September 2009, Senior Planner Steven Turner said.

Of the 300 homeowners in the tract, 46 percent responded, with 24 percent favoring the overlay and 22 percent opposed, according to Senior Planner Steven Turner.

Planning staff recommended in March 2010 that the single-story overlay be dropped, since the percentage of support well below the required 60 percent support for a single-story overlay.

But planning commissioners criticized the original survey for having too many questions.. Commissioners asked for a new, simplified survey to get a more focused reading of neighborhood sentiment before scuttling the overlay proposal.

Residents Tuesday night said many neighbors might not understand what a single-story overlay means.

"There is such confusion. … Can I remodel at all?" one resident asked.

Anne Knight, an original petitioner, said commissioners' expansion of the original proposal (for an overlay on 127 homes) to the entire tract had diluted the survey results and added to the confusion. She said the original 127 homeowners had discussions to understand what the overlay would mean. The expansion sprung the zoning change on residents who had no context for understanding the ordinance, she said.

Knight said residents were promised input into the survey's language. She said they wanted overlay proponents and opponents to contribute language to the survey that is similar to what one receives in voter packages.

Others objected to another survey. The results of the first survey should be enough, they said.

"It's Palo Alto 101. If you don't get what you want you just keep doing it over and over and over until you do," Dan Benas said.

Turner said the divergent views on the survey's language could mean it won't be mailed next week.

"I get the sense that we do not have consensus tonight and we have to go back to the drawing board."

The issue is also confused by deed restrictions dating to 1951 that stipulate the homes must remain single story., pages 68-70.

Single-story overlays are relatively rare, Turner said. Nine neighborhoods have the zoning restriction, with most zones averaging about 20 homes. Greenmeadow has more than 100 homes in a single-story overlay, Turner said.

Most Palo Alto neighborhoods that were rezoned to single-story overlay districts also have similar deed restrictions, according to staff.

Such restrictions are not enforceable by the city, which is why 14 two-story homes have been built in the Fairmeadow tract.

Residents would have to sue neighbors to enforce the restriction. Such was the case in 2008, when three Duveneck-St. Francis neighborhood residents, known as he Architectural Control Committee for Tract No. 1641, sued Edgewood Plaza developer Sand Hill Property for allegedly violating its tract's deed restrictions.

The deed restrictions limit homes to a single story and requires approval of construction plans for homes and the Edgewood retail district by the committee. Sand Hill and the committee reached a settlement in October 2009.

The city does enforce single-story overlays, however. The city could not issue permits for new two-story homes or second-story additions, but could issue permits for single-story homes, one-story additions, developments with heights under 17 feet above grade, according to French.

Planning staff are at present scheduled report the survey's results to the Planning and Transportation Commission on Dec. 8, she said.

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