Landowner could raze home under city historic code

City Attorney's office confirms the Palo Alto ordinance is moot in 94-year-old's case

Palo Alto's historic-building code sides with 94-year-old Lucille Mellish when it comes to her right to demolish her College Terrace house, despite a recent Historic Resources Board's vote to the contrary, the City Attorney's office has confirmed.

On April 23, Mellish sought to have the home taken off the city's Historic Inventory, which protects the city's older buildings from demolition. The seven-member board rejected her request, finding that the house at 757 College Ave. has historic merit.

But a look at the city's historic-building ordinance shows that Mellish doesn't need to have the home delisted to demolish it. That fact was confirmed by the City Attorney's office and the Department of Planning and Community Environment earlier this week.

Mellish and her husband purchased the 696-square-foot cottage in 1968. In 1978, the city decided to include it on the Historic Inventory as a Category 3 or "contributing" structure.

The 1906 single-story home, which Mellish does not live in, is an example of a "workingman's cottage," the Historic Resources Board said. Such structures are increasingly scarce in the city and worth preserving.

Mellish said the only inhabitants of the cottage for the past 20 years have been birds and squirrels and the occasional squatter. The house is an eyesore and a hazard, she added.

She believed that to tear it down, she would have to get the house delisted. That, apparently, is not the case.

"The city's Historic Preservation Ordinance (PAMC 16.49) does not prohibit demolition of a Category 3 building located outside of the Downtown Commercial zone," the City Attorney's office informed the Weekly. For demolitions of Category 3 or 4 buildings not located downtown, no council approval is required.

Mellish said on Wednesday that she was not aware of that fact, and no one told her.

"I think it was very inappropriate that the board didn't tell me all of the ramifications," she said.

Board Chairman Roger Kohler acknowledged on Tuesday that Mellish's home can be demolished. The argument against dropping Mellish's home from the list "came about more or less because of the particular situation of this home, as put by staff in a different way," he said.

"The one thing we were trying to talk to her about was if the home was refurbished, the city could grant her extra bonuses," making the property more valuable, he said.

It may be that a subsequent review would find something important that would prevent the home from being demolished, he said.

City Planner Matthew Weintraub, however, said that staff is not aware of any extenuating circumstance nor anything special about the house that was not in the previous review.

The board also raised the question of willful neglect regarding Mellish's house, citing the ordinance's prohibition of demolition in cases of deliberate cases, Kohler said.

But those sections of the ordinance, once again, only appear to cover historic structures in Palo Alto's downtown area.

Mellish still faces a hurdle to demolition under the city's zoning ordinance, as staff pointed out during the Historic Resources Board hearing. A 2009 city policy requires the city approve of a replacement project for single-family dwellings prior to issuing a demolition permit, Weintraub said.

But that policy is not written into city code, he stated.

"The policy was put in place to support goals, policies and programs in the Comprehensive Plan, including retaining historic resources and ensuring that useable residential land is not left vacant," he wrote in an email. "Previously, owners could demolish existing structures and leave the useable residential land vacant."

City spokesperson Claudia Keith clarified that Mellish's application to the Historic Resources Board was only to remove the historic designation. She has not applied for a demolition permit.

"The owner could submit an application to demolish and develop the property immediately. The City has not told the owner that the existing residence cannot be demolished," Keith said in an email.

Mellish said her next plan is to go before the City Council, which must approve the Historic Resources Board recommendation, and to consult an attorney.

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Like this comment
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2015 at 7:55 am

There may still be problem under CEQA.

7 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2015 at 8:24 am

So, if I am reading this right, it sounds like the Historic Resources Board vote did not comply with the actual city ordinance. Hopefully, they will become familiar with the laws in force before their next vote.

6 people like this
Posted by Gertrude
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 1, 2015 at 8:55 am

Why doesn't Palo Alto just purchase a plot of land and start a historical park like the one in San Jose? This home and others can be moved and preserved for future generations. I'm sure the owner would gladly donate the home to the city.

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 1, 2015 at 8:55 am

So what's this nonsense in the article about a city policy "ensuring that useable residential land is not left vacant." ??

Web Link

13 people like this
Posted by Sound familiar
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2015 at 10:52 am

The HRB deems anything old to be "historic". When I remodel our home built in the 1930's, they were incredibly difficult and were quite misleading as to what I could and couldn't do (demolish vs. not). In our meeting, they kept saying, "Well...since this is historic, you can't do x, y, z." All of it was nonsense since I had the ultimate trump card of just tearing it down if I wanted to.

16 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 1, 2015 at 11:35 am

A historic preservation ordinance was rejected by the voters of Palo Alto some sixteen years ago. The historic preservationists wanted to have the ability to extend historic preservation to any house it deemed historic which was more than 50 years old or any neighborhood they deemed historic. At the time many Eichlers and other homes in South Palo Alto were approaching 50 years of age. The voters smartly rejected this ordinance because it was seen by many as a confiscation of our property rights.

Unfortunately, there were 3 or 4 cottages in College Terrace that were listed as historic just before the historic ordinance went on the ballot. I have tremendous sympathy for Lucille Mellish, I believe she should have the ability to demolish her old house if she wants to, and at 94 she should be given permission to do this ASAP. Right now her property rights have been confiscated by the Historic Resources Board which is grossly unfair.

12 people like this
Posted by Roger
a resident of College Terrace
on May 1, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Lucille should be given Historic preservation status, and get more respect than the council gives to dilapidated shacks.
They should be ashamed of their actions and should unanimously issue an apology.
Oh and whoever gave them the information from city hall should be fired.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe M
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Well, I guess if the home is demolished it will effectively be delisted, won't it?

I like the idea of moving the home to an area of town designated for historical buildings (like the one said to be in San Jose). Oakland has also done a fine job of moving old Victorians to a consolidated area. Just make sure the current owner doesn't have to wait long or pay for its removal.

7 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on May 1, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Joe M - Did you look at the house? It is neither worth moving nor preserving. It is sooo far from being a classic Victorian... It is simply old, and unremarkable in all other ways.

11 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 1, 2015 at 1:37 pm

Sounds like the Historic Resources Board doesn't know what its doing.
Maybe its time for term limits on all boards and commissions.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

on May 1, 2015 at 2:56 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

16 people like this
Posted by jane
a resident of College Terrace
on May 1, 2015 at 3:01 pm

This is a sweet little wood cottage that was abandoned and left to rot away instead of continuing to be a being a rental, which would at least have paid for the upkeep. I've watched with regret as this cottage, as well as the other sweet cottage next to it, slowly deteriorate over the last twenty years. Both are now falling down, termites and dry rot so bad there is nothing left to preserve of either cottage. From what I know of Mrs. Mellish it is very likely that she was so angry at the Category 3 listing she deliberately left them both to rot away! These cottages don't cost Mrs. Mellish anything except for a few dollars property tax, which must be next to nothing since Mrs. Mellish has lived there so long. Category 3 comes with no protection, even in professorville.

8 people like this
Posted by We are special
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2015 at 3:33 pm

It has to be historic, otherwise it would just be a dump like every other city has. And we all know that Palo Alto is special.

17 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Midtown
on May 1, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Classic. She asked the wrong question of people who have no desire to be helpful. Can I have the historical designation removed so that I can raze the cottage? NO (but we won't tell you that no city ordinance says you don't need that in order to legally demolish the structure).
I bet if she told Roger K (when he's wearing his businessman's hat) that she wanted a brand new lot-filling house there he'd have jumped in with both feet and billable hours to help make it happen.
Thank you Weekly for exposing hypocrisy.

7 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2015 at 10:30 pm

Leave the old woman alone!

13 people like this
Posted by conflict of interest
a resident of Midtown
on May 2, 2015 at 7:46 am

Why is a major Palo Alto developer heading up the Historical Resources Board??

Like this comment
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on May 2, 2015 at 3:00 pm

My personal experience with this sort of thing is several years old, so I may be out-of-date. But here's my understanding of the legal situation.

The Preservation Ordinance (16.49) does permit her to demolish this particular house. It'll be subject to demolition delay, which can take up to a year. It's also Planning's policy not to issue a demolition permit until a replacement project has been approved. This is policy, not law, and there have been exceptions, so I'm not sure what would happen if it were challenged.

In Palo Alto, demolition is ministerial rather than discretionary, so CEQA won't come into play for the demolition alone. If she were to propose a new house that involved a discretionary action (for example, a variance, or Individual Review if the new house had more than one story), then CEQA would be triggered. An Initial Study would certainly be required. Since the existing house is Category 3, it's presumed to be significant, so my guess is she'd have to do an Environmental Impact Report, and the conclusions would not be very favorable. Best to stay out of that situation.

There are two easy paths forward. One is to renovate the existing house, if desirable and feasible. The other is to tear it down and build a new single-story house with no variances or exemptions (as has been done elsewhere, 225 Lincoln for example).

No matter what, she should get an attorney with appropriate experience. The HRB and Planning don't deal with this stuff very often, and have turnover, so their institutional memories are limited.

5 people like this
Posted by Oops
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 2, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Or just drive a truck through it. She doesn't have time to dork around with this process. And I suspect the HRB knew of their stall tactic when they lied to her.

7 people like this
Posted by DJ
a resident of another community
on May 4, 2015 at 4:39 am

Wow, people! Check out Web Link for real info. Historic preservation is a national effort to preserve America's endangered cultural resources. Sometimes as may be the case here, people willfully neglect their historic buildings in an effort to evade social responsibility. What would be an equitable outcome for all would be for Palo Alto to purchase the historic building and then it can be restored and not trashed as is happening currently.

Like this comment
Posted by gun toting grannie
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 4, 2015 at 12:31 pm

I like Allen Akin's comments referencing property law facts.

There are some senior citizens who happen to own vastly valuable property assets throughout santa clara and san jose counties, purchased way back, who are financially fully capable of protecting their own interests and don't give a rats hindside about community interests. Whether an american military patriot or say, for example, a miserly and blatant outspoken bigot, This land is her land, this land is not our land, and thats the unequal fabric America was built on.

Like this comment
Posted by Geraldine Kinyon
a resident of Green Acres
on May 4, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Look what happened to the local Juana Briones house...absolutely a crime.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on May 4, 2015 at 2:56 pm

> This land is her land, this land is not our land, and thats the unequal fabric America was built on.

Now that's a right-on, gun totin' fact! Very much in the American spirit, too! And it is why property rights are one of the main threads in the American fabric of freedom. Woody Guthrie never really got it, despite his popular folk tunes.

Thank you, grannie (even if your message is just the opposite of mine...not sure).

Like this comment
Posted by Katie
a resident of College Terrace
on May 4, 2015 at 4:26 pm

If you actually live in the CT neighborhood, this is a nice piece of a land with a house that sags, tilts and is definitely not inhabitable. Given there's an owner with a sound mind, let her do her own thing. Definitely not a house that's worth saving. And it'll be nice to see it be nothing versus an incredible sad eyesore of a house.

2 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 4, 2015 at 10:32 pm

Enjoy your new McMansion, gang.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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