Residents of Eichler neighborhoods clamoring for protection from new mansions on their blocks scored a victory Monday night when the council officially struck from the books a fee for requesting bans on two-story homes.
In its final action before a month-long break, the City Council unanimously agreed that residents should not be charged $8,000 or more when petitioning for single-story-overlay districts, zoning designations in which two-story homes are prohibited. The decision came upon request from five different Eichler neighborhoods in Palo Alto where new two-story homes have recently been built, raising concerns about privacy and architectural compatibility.
Leah McGarrigh, a resident of Los Arboles, which is just south of Loma Verde Avenue and just east of Middlefield Road, told the council before the vote that her neighborhood is prepared to submit its application as soon as the fee is waived.
"Eichler neighborhoods are a significant part of the architectural heritage of Palo Alto and California," McGarrigh said. "Hence, it would be in the city's interest to facilitate their protection."
Dorianne Moss, who lives in the Los Arboles II tract, said that her neighborhood's effort to gather signatures for the overlay district is a "democratic action" for which the city should not impose a fee. Zone changes of this sort differ from those typically sought by developers looking to build a more profitable project.
"We are not seeking to benefit," she told the council. "We are citizens coming to act together, not a single developer seeking to benefit monetarily from such an action."
The council's decision came with little debate. The city has actually never charged the fee, even though it has approved 12 single-story-overlay districts, the last one in 2004. Instead, the council has traditionally treated the zone changes as ones initiated by the city, rather than the neighborhoods.
In response to residents' complaints that the fee is burdensome, the council decided that it should get rid of the fee altogether. This means Eichler neighborhoods like Greer Park, Royal Manor and Faircourt, where the new homes have caused a stir in recent years, are now free to file applications for the two-story ban. They will still have to show support from 70 percent of the homeowners on their blocks to have the overlay approved.
If the five neighborhoods all choose to go forward with requests, the number of Palo Alto lots where two-story homes are banned could go up by more than 300. The city's current 12 districts cover 846 lots.
David Hammond, a resident of Greer Park, cited the current climate of real-estate speculation as reason enough for waiving the fee. His home and others in the neighborhood have recently been assessed by potential buyers, he said. He had received a written offer of $1.5 million for his Eichler, which he noted is located in the deepest part of the flood plain. A buyer could be interested in replacing the Eichler with a home built to the maximum size, and height, allowed.
"It is urgent that it gets done now, with all the pressure from the real estate industry," Hammond said.
The council quickly assented, with members pointing to historic precedent.
"Given that this has been our practice in the past, let's continue this practice in the future," Councilwoman Liz Kniss said.
Councilman Greg Scharff agreed, saying, "I think this is absolutely the right thing to do."
The council also agreed to consider other methods for promoting neighborhood protection, including the possible creation of preservation districts or conservation districts. These zoning designations typically have specific development standards and architectural guidelines to ensure that new developments are consistent with existing neighborhood character. Explorations of these efforts will unfold over the next year as part of the city's update of its guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan.