Residents in five Palo Alto Eichler neighborhoods said they plan to ask the city to institute zone changes that limit homes to one story on their blocks, marking the single-largest movement for such a change in the city's history.
The goal, to cap the construction of towering residences in 1950s-era neighborhoods, is coming in response to a series of recent approvals by the City Council of large, two-story homes, they said.
The new homes are out of character with the neighborhoods and intrude upon privacy, members of the ad hoc Palo Alto Eichler Association said during a May 19 presentation before the Midtown Residents Association. The Eichlers' expanses of glass let in natural sunlight, but neighbors in adjacent two-story remodels can see inside bedrooms, bathrooms and other spaces.
The controversy isn't new, particularly in the communities developed by Joseph Eichler. Palo Altans have been lobbying for so-called "single-story overlays," which ban the addition of second floors, in specific neighborhoods for nearly two decades. In February, the City Council conceded that guidelines for reviewing proposed homes and protecting the character of neighborhoods are flawed and should be revised.
Three large remodels in the Midtown and Palo Verde neighborhoods sparked the residents' movement, they said.
Residents initially challenged approval of a 27-foot-tall remodel on Richardson Court, but they dropped the appeal after a compromise with the homeowner in August added opaque glazing and repositioned the second-story windows.
In Palo Verde, residents opposed a blocky, two-story home in the 3500 block of Louis Road in May 2014. The applicant revised the plans.
Residents lost their appeal over a third residence when the council approved a home on Corina Way in February.
Frank Ingle, who lives on Richardson Court in the 35-home Faircourt subdivision, lives next to the new home over which residents reached a compromise. Preserving the neighborhood's character is as important as his privacy, he said.
For Richard Willits, however, the issue is privacy, he said after the Midtown association meeting.
"It's that our homes typically have two floor-to-ceiling glass walls," he said.
Willits lives in the 213-home Royal Manor tract bounded by Loma Verde Avenue, Louis Road, West Bayshore and Greer roads, and Kenneth Drive. His neighborhood group is working to obtain the required number of signatures to petition for the overlay. In neighborhoods with covenant restrictions (CC&Rs), 60 percent of homeowners must approve of the overlay. In neighborhoods without restrictions, 70 percent approval is required, according to city code.
Other neighborhoods considering single-story overlays include Faircourt, in the area of Richardson Court and Murray Way; the Triple El "extension," east of Greer Road and Elsinore Drive; and the remainder of the Greer Park North subdivision, including Metro and Moffett circles and adjacent Eichlers on the north side of Greer and east side of Amarillo.
Adjacent Van Auken Circle already has an overlay, Chief Planning Official Amy French said.
The city has approved overlays for eight neighborhoods in the past 20-plus years: Walnut Grove in 1992, followed by Adobe Meadow/Meadow Park, Greenmeadow, Garland Park/Charleston Meadows, Triple El, and small portions of Duveneck/St. Francis, Barron Park and Midtown, according to the city.
The Planning and Transportation Commission rejected a bid by 89 Fairmeadow residents in 2010 after other residents came forward in opposition. A city-generated survey to all 300 residences received a low response, with those for and against nearly evenly split, and the petition eventually died.
Some neighborhoods have CC&Rs, or "covenants, conditions and restrictions," which specify that only single-story homes are allowed unless a three-member, neighborhood architectural-review committee approves of an exception. But Ingle said the process can be fraught with problems.
Faircourt homes, where he lives, are restricted to a single story, according to its 1957 CC&R, but enforcing that rule would pit the homeowner seeking the two-story exception against three others who are on the committee. That might lead to litigation, Ingle said. The neighborhood doesn't even have an existing architectural committee, given that the original three members -- Joseph Eichler and his sons, Richard and Edward -- are deceased.
To obtain a single-story designation from the city, a neighborhood must be defined by natural or man-made boundaries, such as streets or parks, and 80 percent of existing homes within the designated area must be single-story, according to the city ordinance.
There are also hefty fees to be paid, Ingle said.
French said the fees total nearly $8,000. Mayor Karen Holman and Councilman Tom DuBois had asked the council's Finance Committee to consider waiving the fees, but the committee voted on May 26 not to authorize a waiver at this time, French said.
"The discussion centered around a desire for additional information at a later time. For example, the committee is interested in information regarding the numbers of neighborhoods that could be affected, whether waivers should be considered to be permanent or temporary, and other factors," she said in an email.
But other options besides single-story overlays could also be considered, said Steven Eichler, grandson of Joseph Eichler, after the Midtown meeting. In 2010, the City of Los Angeles adopted a historic-preservation overlay in Granada Hills to protect Joseph Eichler's only subdivision in Los Angeles.
Other "Eichler zones" are possible through preservation or conservation districts, he said.
Palo Alto established one such conservation district when it added the South of Forest Avenue (SOFA II) overlay, which established specific criteria to guide new housing and major additions based on the characteristics of the neighborhood.
But former Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams in 2008 warned the adoption of such overlays could likewise be difficult to obtain.
"Staff notes that any approach to this issue, either an overlay similar to the single-story combining district or neighborhood plan standards, would be very time and staff intensive, and is likely to be highly controversial," he wrote.