Growth may be a citywide issue in Palo Alto, but for Jeanie Stephens it hits particularly close to home.
Ten feet from her property line, to be exact.
On Monday night, Stephens was one of more than a dozen residents who took part in an emerging trend in Palo Alto -- an appeal of a single-family residence that had been approved by the Planning Department.
For the third time in less than a year, residents have formally challenged a proposed home that they claimed is too massive and too intrusive for their quiet, Eichler-style blocks. But while prior challenges to proposed homes on Richardson Court and Metro Circle ultimately fizzled before they got to a formal City Council hearing (in both cases, the developer avoided an appeal by agreeing to make revisions before the hearing), Stephen's appeal of an approved home at 3864 Corina Way received its day in the Council Chambers.
The two-hour discussion ultimately ended with the council voting 6-1 against the appeal, thus affirming the approval by city planners. With Vice Mayor Greg Schmid dissenting and Councilmen Tom DuBois and Greg Scharff absent, the council gave the green-light to a two-story home on a block where one-story houses are the norm.
Proposed by Helen Koo, the new home would be 23 feet and 7 inches tall at its highest point, though the second floor would be set back further from the Stephens property to minimize the privacy impacts. The 3,015-square-foot home would have five bedrooms and four bathrooms. But though both its height and its setback from the Stephens' property line are well within local zoning laws, neighbors argued that the new building is incompatible with the character of the block and should thus be rejected.
Though the building would not be the only two-story building on the cul-de-sac, Stephens noted that it would be much larger than most residences on the block. In her appeal presentation, Stephens argued that the building would loom over her backyard, forcing her to stare at a giant wall and affecting her family's quality of life.
"There will be no place on our property to escape this massive building," Stephens said.
Frank Ingle, who appealed the project on Richardson Court (the appeal was dropped after the builder agreed not to have windows facing Ingle's yard), was part of a group of residents who supported Stephens' appeal. He called for the council to take a fresh look at its guidelines for individual reviews (a process for approving single-family homes) and argued that the existing appeals process is broken. Ingle said that it gives too much power to city planners, whose interpretation of what is compatible often clashes with that of neighbors.
"Policies don't mean anything unless you periodically review the results and see if they're being followed," Ingle said.
Other residents, including Cheryl Lilienstein and Ken Allen, also urged the council to overturn staff's approval of the Corina Way house. Lilienstein, president of the slow-growth group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, said the home is "not in context."
"It's too massive and it overwhelms the home behind it, which is in violation of individual-review guidelines," Lilienstein said.
Koo, for her part, argued that her family has already made numerous compromises and had already reduced the height and revised the design for the proposed home, which would occupy a currently vacant site.
She noted that the new home would be set back from the Stephens' property line by 10 feet, even though the city's guidelines require only an 8-foot setback. Furthermore, the second story would have a setback of 24 square feet, three times the requirement. She also stressed that there would be trees planted all around the house, further screening it from neighboring properties.
"It's going to be surrounded by trees in all three directions, and once the proposed screening tree is in place, the entire house is going to be screened by trees," Koo said.
She also told the council that she addressed Stephens' privacy concerns by placing windows on the second floor well above eye level and making them obscured.
"In other words, on our second floor, we cannot look at our own yard," Koo said.
Council members agreed with Stephens and her supporters that the individual-review guidelines are flawed and that it's time to revisit them. Yet the majority also agreed that the Koo proposal meets the existing guidelines and should be approved.
Councilman Pat Burt was among those who supported modifying the rule and taking a fresh look at how the existing rules are being interpreted. But he also argued that the existing design, while not perfectly compatible with its surroundings, is far more sensitive to them than some of the other homes that have won approval in recent years.
"I think there are some ways in which this home is not highly compatible with surrounding homes, but I also don't see it as massive and monumental," Burt said.
Councilman Eric Filseth similarly argued that the proposed home followed the rules, however imperfect they may be. Though the home is larger than most neighboring residences, he said, there are other two-story buildings on the block, including a large Mediterranean-style house in close proximity.
"It seems to me that the house meets code," Filseth said of Koo's proposal. "And things should meet code. And if we don't like the projects that our codes produce, then we should change the code. If we don't follow our codes, we have no way for the city to mange its land use."
Schmid questioned the existing guidelines and wondered whether they are in fact supporting the city's overarching aim to protect the quality of life in local neighborhoods.
"Increasingly, you're finding appeals from neighborhood groups against a single-property holder who they say is doing something incompatible with the neighborhood and identifies the problem of mass, bulk, height and privacy," Schmid said.
His colleagues, however, felt that the builder in this case has done enough to mitigate these impacts. Councilman Cory Wolbach ultimately made a motion to approve the project, thus affirming the findings from the Planning Department.
Wolbach called the decision "not an easy choice" but argued that the applicant in this case has "seemingly gone out of way to try to respect the neighborhood and respect neighbors."
In approving the house, the council added a condition upon the urging of Mayor Karen Holman requiring that the trees screening the house from neighboring properties be maintained for the life of the house.
"I think the applicant has done an admirable job of trying to provide a project that tries to fulfill their dream home design while respecting the privacy of neighbors," Wolbach said. "The appellant can continue to enjoy her backyard in perpetuity without being watched from the neighbor's house."