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.