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Palo Alto to reconsider fee for single-story zones

Council looks to make it easier for Eichler neighborhoods to ban two-story buildings

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Palo Alto residents seeking to enact bans on two-story homes in their Eichler neighborhoods may soon get a little financial aid from the city.

The City Council on Monday sympathized with a growing chorus of Eichler homeowners clamoring for "single-story overlays" in their neighborhoods and agreed to reconsider the fee that the city charges for the zoning change. Under the current system, which aims to achieve cost recovery, residents wishing to apply for a single-story overlay must cough up around $8,000 for the zone change, which also requires support from 70 percent of the neighborhood.

Homeowners in several Eichler enclaves say getting the support of their neighbors isn't the problem. It's the fee that hinders their efforts to protect their generally squat and glassy one-story buildings from taller newcomers. Because Eichler homes typically have glass doors, homeowners worry that their privacy would be violated by multi-story buildings.

In letters to the council and in testimony on Monday night, Eichler homeowners beseeched the council to waive or reduce the fee.

Frank Ingle, who lives in an Eichler home on Richardson Court in Midtown, recently challenged a neighbor who had bought an adjacent property and who proposed to build a two-story home there. After preparing for an appeal, the neighbors ultimately reached a compromise. Yet Ingle noted that the new house is more than twice the size of his own.

"We see a land rush happening in our neighborhood and many neighborhoods," Ingle said. "We'd like to have a collective ability to control this to some extent."

Ingle asked the council to consider waiving the fees for at least a year. Doing so would help the city, he said, because Eichler neighborhoods would have clear rules about what's allowed, and the council would not have to struggle with a parade of appeals filed by Eichler homeowners against their neighbors.

Ben Lerner, a resident of Palo Verde, made a similar request. He noted that the current fee of $8,000 can be raised further, if more work is required for the overlay change. Given the uncertainty, the system in place today is "not very resident or neighborhood friendly."

"I feel that this is not just a partisan issue for a particular neighborhood or a particular homeowner but there's a value to the entire city to preserve Eichlers. ... They are a valued part of Palo Alto's housing tradition," Lerner said.

The city currently has at least eight overlays, including in Greenmeadow, Walnut Grove, Adobe Meadow, Triple El and sections of Midtown and Duveneck/St. Francis.

Councilman Pat Burt said interest in single-story overlay districts tends to correspond to periods of growth, when the number of remodeling and rebuilding projects increase. They come in waves, he said, and the city appears to be in the midst of a wave now.

"We can go from none to a small avalanche," Burt said.

The council didn't rescind the fee on Monday, but council members proved open to revisiting the subject and possibly lowering the fee.

Councilman Tom DuBois led the push to reduce the fee. The city's attempt to recover its costs has pushed up the fee in recent years, he said, and citizens are now being asked to "jump through a bunch of hoops."

The council's Finance Committee discussed the topic during its May review of the fiscal year 2016 budget. The committee voted not to make any changes in the fees at this time, but to obtain more information and deliberate further in the coming weeks before reaching a decision. DuBois favored faster action and urged his colleagues to cap the fee.

"There are policy issues that we should think about, but I think we're also in a heated real estate market," DuBois said. "We can't afford to take a year. People are asking for this now."

DuBois initially proposed setting the fee at $2,000, but later withdrew that proposal in favor of the more open-ended approach favored by Councilman Greg Scharff, who serves on the Finance Committee.

Scharff said the Finance Committee wanted to understand the history of the fee and evaluate different options before making a decision. The goal, he said, was to make the change "at a deliberative and thoughtful manner, rather than just waiving it by not including it in the budget."

Councilman Marc Berman also said he'd like to get more information before making any decisions on the fee.

Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed. While she observed the growing "sense of urgency" in the community, she supported having the Finance Committee revisit the topic within a month.

Mayor Karen Holman pointed to the surging development climate and the high number of speakers as reasons to act with urgency. The one question that the council already has an answer to is whether there is interest in single-story overlays. The city, she said, has "literally hundreds of homeowners who want protection for their neighborhoods."

Holman agreed with DuBois that the city's individual-review process for approving new homes is "not working." She also noted that the city's Comprehensive Plan talks frequently about the importance of recognizing individual neighborhood and individual characteristics.

"I think it's incumbent for the Council to support that and support the members of the community who support that," Holman said.

After a long discussion, the council voted 6-0, with Councilman Eric Filseth absent, to delve deeper into the subject on June 29.

Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilman Cory Wolbach both recused themselves from the discussion because they live in neighborhoods that could be affected by the fee modification.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


9 people like this
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 9, 2015 at 7:52 am

Hard to believe that there aren't a substantial number of homeowners in the areas affected who would not want their property burdened with a single story overlay.

16 people like this
Posted by Mystified
a resident of University South
on Jun 9, 2015 at 8:10 am

It's hard to see that a single-story overlay wouldn't substantially affect the value of the property. Most of today's high values are about the land, not the house - effectively they are an option on rebuilding.

There's a middle option that makes more sense - have a clear set of guidelines about how a homeowner can add a second story without creating visibility issues. Window and tree placement would be the key issues.

10 people like this
Posted by It's a good thing for many
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2015 at 9:29 am

While an overlay may not be the best idea for all neighborhoods or for the posters above, it seemed pretty clear that it is the right thing for the ones who spoke last night. These are Eichlers that are in good shape and situated to work together. There is value in protecting that. Representatives spoke for the groups of houses where it does make sense and where homeowners overwhelmingly support the change.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 9, 2015 at 12:10 pm

A possible compromise: grandfather those homeowners who do not want to agree to a 1SO. If they don't go 2-stories while they own the property, then the house converts to 1SO upon the sale of the property.

Like this comment
Posted by confused
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 9, 2015 at 1:48 pm

What is a one story overlay? Is that a 2-story house?. The term 'overlay' is the part I don't understand. Who pays the $8K, people in the neighborhood who want to maintain just 1 story homes in their neighborhood or the persons wanting to add a 2nd story?

3 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 9, 2015 at 3:20 pm

@confused, the one story "overlay" is a change to existing zoning (that allows two story additions) that "overlays" the existing zoning with one that contains an additional restriction that homes within the area are restricted to one story. I con only surmise that they call it an "overlay" to emphasize that the underlying zoning is no different than other, similar, zones in the. It's. However, I am not a lawyer.

Existing neighborhood residents pay the fee.

Like this comment
Posted by No longer confused
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 9, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Thank you Rick!

10 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 9, 2015 at 5:20 pm

When they were initially constructed, most (if not all) of these Eichler neighborhoods were given deed restrictions that prevent any house on the property (whether remodeled or a tear-down rebuild) from having a second story.

For neighborhoods with a single-story deed restriction, the single-story overlay does not change the rights of the property owner. It just means that the City will not issue building permits for construction that is not legally permitted under the existing deed restriction.

13 people like this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2015 at 5:28 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

I 100% agree with the concept of a Single Story Overlay [SSO] as a means for Mid Century Modern - Eichler neighborhoods to maintain the character of their residential area. Its a way of blocking the introduction of disproportionate new developments. It does not impact the way in which a current owner or new owner can redesign their one story home, it only prevents building a second story. This may not be a suitable process for different kinds of neighborhoods but it works well for Mid Century Modern. It is also has the advantage of being a simple concept to understand and enforce.
Hopefully the council will agree to the SSO and the SSO fee waiver as a way to protect one of Palo Alto's signature architectural styles.

Like this comment
Posted by Mikey
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Thanks David for your informative post. Do you know where I could read more about the deed restriction?

If true, that changes the way I feel about this issue - if its really in the deed and people are on notice when they buy and sell, then I have no problem with the overlay. I just had a problem with it when I thought people would be prevented from otherwise lawful 2nd story construction which would devalue the property.

So basically, people weren't allowed to build 2nd stories (in certain areas) but they did it anyway for all these years?

7 people like this
Posted by peppered
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2015 at 6:07 pm

The overlay is utterly stupid. Multi-million dollar land value neighborhood with burdensome restrictions on what people can build.

The glass door Eichlers should just get curtains.

Ultimately this will be detrimental to property values.

4 people like this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 9, 2015 at 6:41 pm

First of all there needs to be a correction. Meadow Park bordered by Adobe Creek, Louis, Grove and East Charleston is single-story overlay. Adobe Meadows bordered by Adobe Creek, Louis and East Meadow is NOT single-story overlay that is why the correspondent from Adobe Meadows is confused.

I'm glad my neighborhood which is part Williams & Burroughs homes and part Eichler rejected single-story overlay. As generations change older neighborhoods that insist on single-story overlay may loose their property values over time because the a younger generation of homeowners like to remodel and create two story homes.

10 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 9, 2015 at 7:05 pm

Or when the older generation (or their heirs) finally cashes out, we'll contract to build a massive McMansion for sale to the highest bidder, and heck with the neighbors we leave behind.

2 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 9, 2015 at 7:50 pm

Privacy is a huge issue. An intentional part of their design and a huge part of the charm of these homes are the floor to ceiling windows with their wide sliding glass doors to the patio and yard. Specifying trees be used as a privacy screen is no solution at all. Not only do trees take at least twenty years to grow high enough, existing trees can be cut down, or might have to be if diseased or old. Perhaps if second story additions are recessed so there are no sight lines into adjoining homes a (including the rear) might work.

9 people like this
Posted by YSK
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2015 at 8:50 pm

Someone builds up around our Eichler I will make it the most unappealing view ever...junkyard here we come!

Like this comment
Posted by Right
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 9, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Many suicides have been teens. The issue is school stress, not the tracks. They can find an open track. A Los Altos High gal jumped from a freeway ramp. Work on the schools not the tracks.

2 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 9, 2015 at 10:15 pm


Good info. And it makes sense since I see buildups in the Adobe-Meadow area, some of which are just boxes plopped on top of a home like mine. I guess you'd call that the Mid-Century Modern Ugly architectural style. I built out and it's wonderful. I've Zillowed the area and mine is valued higher than many of those buildups and I think any future buyers will be attracted to it for the design that I did for the two additions I made. It's a great home with no stairs to climb. Some people would be attracted by that I'm pretty sure.

6 people like this
Posted by MD from TO
a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2015 at 11:09 pm

MD from TO is a registered user.

To "peppered"- "Eichlers should have curtains" - do some research. Many do now depending upon their configuration and the afternoon sun. Can't wait to see your "new stucco box" design with lots of gables, curtains and granite counter tops. Will really blend in well in an Eichler neighborhood. BTW, are you from SoCal where the mansionization disease began? Now it's infecting Palo Alto.

1 person likes this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 10, 2015 at 7:37 am

Many believe that the privacy of Eichler back yards is of more value than simply adding more square feet and a second story so everyone can watch each other from the upstairs bedrooms. There is no evidence that SSO leads to reduced property values. And there are more important things in life than property values.

2 people like this
Posted by Bob1
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 10, 2015 at 9:19 am

@Steve, just look at how efficiently buyers value 2 class of Google stocks: Symbol GOOG and GOOGL. Both class of stock was at the same price one year ago at split. Guess which class of stock has the voting restrictions.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 10, 2015 at 9:27 am

"And there are more important things in life than property values."

Tell that to the many homeowners who have no pensions or have minimal 401K savings. I don't think it is a reach in saying that a Palo Alto home is the most valuable retirement asset most people have.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jean
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 10, 2015 at 10:30 am

About 15 years ago a citizen's committee studying the comprehensive plan came forth with the recommendation that all second story side windows should be opaque glass or be placed high up so you cannot see out into your neighbors house or yard. This recommendation was adopted by the City Council and is now code.

Because of this restriction side windows are either opaque or placed high up so you can't see out, and are usually windows of bathrooms. Therefore, I can't understand why residents of Eichlers are complaining they are overlooked.

3 people like this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 10, 2015 at 10:46 am

@Jean - there are multiple new 2 story homes on our street, none of them have only high windows or opaque windows on the second floor. Were these restrictions for homes next to Eichlers only?

4 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 10, 2015 at 10:48 am

Tell that to the city please. The two new second stories in my back yard and the 2 new tear downs on our block all have either transparent windows or balconies on the second story.

2 people like this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 10, 2015 at 12:10 pm

@Jean - per the City's guidelines - "Use smaller upper floor windows and/or selective glazing at privacy sensitive locations. " That doesn't mean that all second story window need to be small or opaque, I would assume "privacy sensitive locations" would be bathrooms and perhaps bedrooms, so windows should be placed directly across from either of those.

5 people like this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2015 at 1:08 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

Everyone in Palo Alto and beyond is entitled to an opinion on this matter. However this effort is focussed very narrowly on neighborhoods that are still predominately Mid Century/Eichler and where it needs 70% [although other numbers have been stated but all lower than 70%] of the people in that neighborhood to agree with the zoning change and to sign a form to present to the Council. Its an opportunity for a small group to maintain their clearly defined neighborhood to keep it consistent over time. As such in practical terms it does not affect anyone else. In terms of property values many claims have been made they will be negatively impacted however there is no consensus on this and many people have shown reports that disagree with this opinion. Also, if it were true it would affect the very people supporting the SSO, indicating that they value maintaining their neighborhood more than squeezing the last dollar out of it.

2 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 10, 2015 at 3:10 pm

Gethin, you nailed it. If you don't like Eichlers, feel free not to live in one.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anna
a resident of Ventura
on Jun 13, 2015 at 8:49 pm

The SSO is not just for Eichler neighborhoods. Any group of property owners in Palo Alto can apply for a SSO from the City. It is expensive (many thousands of dollars). There is a lot of paperwork to do. And most of the property owners must agree (70%?) to apply for the SSO. My neighbors and I have talked about applying for an SSO because of the real estate Frenzy in our neighborhood.

I live in the Ventura neighborhood between Page Mill Road, West Meadow Drive, Alma and El Camino Real.
Most of the houses are 50-60 years old on small lots. In the last few years, I have seen Buyers come in with cash, pay $1 million plus to tear down one of those oldies but goodies, and then build monster McMansions to maximize their real estate investment. When my neighbors and I went to a the City to inquire about one two story McMonster House, we were told by a Plan Checker that building a 2 story house would increase the value of our homes. She also suggested that we sell our homes and go live in an apartment. I was so appalled by her comments, that I complained in writing to her Supervisor. The 2 story McMansion was approved despite our objections. If we had a SSO, it would not have been possible to build a 2 Story house

Ironically, the Owner can still build a large house on a small lot even with an existing SSO. Just one story.
I live between two Construction Zones. Both project designs have 4BR, 3Baths, FR with 1 Car garage. One is a 2 story while the other project is a 1 story design. While I am not a Luddite, I do feel that the Real Estate Frenzy has degraded the quality of our lives in our neighborhoods and in our city.

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