News

Palo Alto landowner, 95, prevails in fight with City Hall

Neighborhood eyesores reduced to rubble this week

College Terrace resident Lucille Mellish made headlines in April after the Palo Alto Historic Resources Board declined her petition to remove one of two dilapidated homes she owns from the city's Historic Inventory so that she could demolish it.

The 1906 home at 757 College Ave. and an adjacent home at 739 College had been vacant for decades, and Mellish, 95, wanted to rid herself of the dangers she said they posed and to have the properties unencumbered for her heirs.

Mellish and her husband purchased the 696-square-foot cottage at 757 College in 1968. It wasn't on the Historic Inventory at the time, but 10 years later the city added the home to the list. Mellish said she never wanted the home to be designated as a historic residence.

No one has lived at 757 College for at least 20 years -- except for birds, squirrels, termites and the occasional squatter, Mellish said in April.

But the Historic Resources Board rejected her petition, finding the single-story house to be an example of a "workingman's cottage," which board members said meets the criteria as a historical asset. The seven-member board unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council keep the home on the list.

Mellish said she didn't have the money to fix the homes, which were a neighborhood eyesore. She lives around the corner in an adjacent home on Wellesley Street.

"I'm afraid inquisitive children in the neighborhood will go into the home and get hurt, and I'm afraid they will sue me," she said.

"It's just awful. There's nothing about it that's historical. No one has ever lived in it that's of any note. It's nothing but a piece of junk," she said after the hearing.

City Manager James Keene's office disagreed with the board, finding that Mellish could demolish the homes since there are no provisions under the city's ordinance against demolishing a Category 3 historic home, such as Mellish's, outside of the city's downtown.

Mellish said she received the permits on July 29, and the homes were demolished this week. On Wednesday, the piles of rubble were hauled away.

"I'm very happy it's done. It's taken a long time," she said.

She does not plan to build on the sites, she added.

Comments

30 people like this
Posted by Jean Libby
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 23, 2015 at 11:14 am

The headline to this article is exactly the opposite of its content. Mrs. Mellish was helped by City Hall, City Manager James Keene took her part. She was fighting the Historic Resources Board. They are definitely not City Hall.

Doesn't the Palo Alto Online have an editor? Or are you publishing like the Google cars without drivers.


11 people like this
Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 23, 2015 at 11:18 am

Good to see common sense prevail. Between these arbitrary historical home designations and all the conflict-of-interest stories among our planning commission members, we were becoming a dysfunctional bureaucracy w/ special-interest appointees pushing for initiatives that go against what most homeowners in town want.

Glad things turn out well for this homeowner.


19 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 11:23 am

Reason prevailed. Way to go, Lucille!


5 people like this
Posted by NoStory
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 23, 2015 at 11:48 am

This is all very misleading. The HRB wasn't asked about demolition. It was asked about listing a historic property already on the historic register. Lit was historic by our rules so HRB said yes it is. That doesn't mean the owner can't demolish it. When she asked to do that she was told she could. Really no story here , mostly a misunderstanding by the owner.


15 people like this
Posted by CT resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Those homes weren't an "eyesore" - they were the last reminders of the charming neighborhood we used to have here in College Terrace. Why someone with three million-dollar+ lots in Palo Alto can't afford to maintain their property in functional order beggars the imagination. And so does Jim Keene's decision to allow demolition of a historic building. I'm disgusted.


7 people like this
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:18 pm

Ms. Mellish had to go up against the unanimous decision by the Historic Resources Board, spend time and money against what must have looked like an uphill battle, and go through the tension of developing a counter argument to prevail against the preservation pundits. No doubt Mr. Keene came to her aid with a more reasoned decision but that does not diminish the fight she had to put up, even at her age.

So IMHO, the headline is absolutely valid, whether published by a an entity akin to a self-driving car or a human journalist (more likely), notwithstanding snarky comments by self-righteous folks.


19 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:23 pm

@CT resident -- perhaps you didn't notice the date these properties were purchased (1968, when things were affordable). Owning million-dollar lots simply means you have equity, but borrowing from that to do extensive repairs as an older person makes little sense, especially given the history of the house. It was designated historically without her request or knowledge. I echo the sentiments of others -- commonsense prevailed.


3 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 23, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Here's the view from google maps. Looks like a shack. The historic folks getting a bit ahead of themselves? Web Link


3 people like this
Posted by Carrie
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 23, 2015 at 2:56 pm

Kudos to her. I guess the older you are (95) the lucky you are.


9 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 3:12 pm

Great to see! College Terrace was subject to this old movie in the past. NO MORE historical homes mandates...if the current owner wants to volunteer to put up a protective covenant, I have no problem (as long as it is brought up to modern standards). These two eyesores were long overdue for the excavator. Did my heart good to see them get chewed up!


8 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Lucille Mellish should be nominated for a Tall Trees award by Palo Alto leadership. She is getting on in years, so our leadership should act with a certain amount of urgency. She stood up for private property rights in PA! After all, if Lucille's properties were in the elite neighborhoods, where most of our leadership live, this issue would never have surfaced...those old shacks would be gone in an eye blink.

Tall Trees for Lucille...NOW!


Like this comment
Posted by Bizaro
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 4:55 pm

[Post removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 6:20 pm

"Tall Trees for Lucille...NOW!"

Craig, I agree with you. I also live in CT. We have been imprisoned by these historical mandates. I hope this is the break in in dam. I appreciate your honest opinion. I wish I had your courage.


1 person likes this
Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2015 at 7:01 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 23, 2015 at 7:14 pm

I agree with the folks who've written that this situation was described incorrectly.

Palo Alto's preservation ordinance permits demolition of "historic" structures in most parts of the city. The legal tool most commonly used to prevent this is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA applies to cultural resources as well as more traditional environmental issues (air, water, traffic, noise, etc.). CEQA imposes new responsibilities on local governments in cases where they have discretion, but in general it doesn't provide new authority.

The city permits demolition most places, and if the owner avoids any discretionary reviews that trigger CEQA, then the state law never comes into play. If someone on the HRB or in Planning had explained this to Lucille, they would have saved her a lot of trouble.

There are complications beyond what I've described here, but they aren't significant in Lucille's case.


7 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 23, 2015 at 7:31 pm

>CEQA applies to cultural resources as well as...

Loosely goosey regulations like that are what constitute public takings of private properties. If the historical preservationists want to preserve a property, then do it the honest way...BUY IT.

[Portion removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by steve lindsey
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2015 at 9:29 am

A victory for property rights activists. A stunning setback for historic preservationists... With this hole blown through the Historic Inventory, you can drive a Mack truck through it.

Perhaps the Historic Inventory should be desolved, and the the Historic Resources Board disbanded.

After all, heritage matters little in the modern era.


Like this comment
Posted by Hanko
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 24, 2015 at 10:04 am

Responding to Jean Libby. City Hall includes the City Council, and the City Council appoints the 7 board members of the Historic Resource Board. The City also empowers the Historic Resource Board to make decisions about properties. The title of the article is proper, and just because the City Manager is not in agreement does not disqualify it as "City Hall". Whether the board acted properly is the important point, and seems they did not make a good decision on this property. I believe the government has no right to force anyone, rich or poor, to give up their assets without just compensation. If the Historic Resource Board is taking from its citizens their wealth without just compensation, then perhaps our rich community should put city assets into compensation or purchase, with or without power of eminent domain. The 7 board members are not elected officials, they are chosen by the city council, perhaps that may be reviewed if such power is vested by this group.


Like this comment
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 24, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Responding to Steve Lindsey: Just to be clear, this situation isn't a victory or defeat for either property-rights or preservation activists. None of the rules have changed or have been interpreted in a new and different way as a result of it. I know of a few other properties that have gone through this process in the past several years with much less fanfare. 225 Lincoln is an example; a category 3 house was demolished and replaced with a new one. The (currently vacant) property at the corner of Waverley and Santa Rita, across from the Jobs house, is another; if I remember correctly, the house that used to be there was a category 4.

The only significant change that's happened in recent years is the strict application of CEQA, which began in 2007. That works very strongly against property rights.


Like this comment
Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Oct 25, 2015 at 2:34 pm

I'll bet it housed rodents if sitting there so long unoccupied, as well. And incidentally, she had a very good point about neighborhood children being interested to go take a look. It's called an attractive nuisance. There was a very old house sitting at the edge of an erroding cliff here in my neighhborhood, Seal Cove , out by the "Historic" Moss Beach Distillery. It always attracted lookey-lous. One day, a neighbor spotted two teenage boys skatboarding atop the roof. Imagine! It was torn down, but not before the owner wanted to build a 6,000 sq ft home on the lot. The neighbors all objected, but not because we were NIMBYs but because we know the geological instability of the area. Since then he has lost a huge section to errosion, so in fact, we save him some money.


1 person likes this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 26, 2015 at 9:10 am

I didn't realize the HRB had such enormous powers normally reserved for the council.

The HRB should be abolished and new members should be elected, not appointed, if they are to have such powers.


Like this comment
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 26, 2015 at 9:32 am

The HRB really doesn't have a lot of power (although this isn't widely understood, sometimes even by members of the HRB). They're required to review projects involving historically or architecturally significant buildings, but for the most part owners don't have to comply with their recommendations; that's voluntary. See the text of the preservation ordinance for details: Web Link

The HRB does have influence over the designation of significant buildings, which can bring other laws into play. When CEQA is involved, the HRB reviews the project and advises the Planning department about the project's compliance with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for preservation; however, the final decision is made by the Director of Planning. In the cases in which a full Environmental Impact Report is required, City Council approves or rejects the conclusions of the EIR.

Nevertheless, the HRB is the source of expert advice for Planning, so the city staff does take their advice seriously.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 26, 2015 at 2:29 pm

>The HRB really doesn't have a lot of power....

Yes it does, and for the reason you describe: "The HRB does have influence over the designation of significant buildings, which can bring other laws into play. When CEQA is involved, the HRB reviews the project and advises the Planning department about the project's compliance with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for preservation; however, the final decision is made by the Director of Planning. In the cases in which a full Environmental Impact Report is required, City Council approves or rejects the conclusions of the EIR."

Once the HRB develops an interest in a private property, it certainly can (and probably will) cause a huge legal issue for the property owner...at the property owner's expense. These legal expenses have a very frightening and chilling straight jacket on private property owners, especially small property owners.

I was caught up in this nightmare, when my property was declared an historical house. Local historical houses activists thought they could simply run with it. Wrong...and number of us rose up, and after many meetings and complaints with the city of PA, it got forced onto the ballot. We beat their butts! My house is now a simple shack on a simple private lot, and I can sell it at the market price. [Portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by @Craig Laughton
a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2015 at 2:41 pm

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 26, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Craig: Sorry to hear about your experience. It reminds me very much of Michael Campbell's, just a block away from where I live.

From my experience, which was extensive, the HRB takes much more heat than it deserves. Palo Alto's preservation ordinance really gives a lot of control to the property owner.

CEQA, on the other hand, can lock anyone into a process that is poorly defined, poorly implemented, expensive, and (by design) overrides local control. If something needs to be fixed, CEQA gets my vote rather than the HRB. The most pragmatic fix is to change local ordinances so that CEQA simply doesn't come into play.


3 people like this
Posted by steve lindsey
a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2015 at 2:18 pm


Maybe she shouldn't have acquired the properties if she could maintain them? With ownership comes stewardship. But she does point away around preservationists, environmentalists and community activists. Just let the property go. Rather than sell to a responsible steward. Large-scale developers can follow her lead. She showed them the way. Well done.


Like this comment
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 29, 2015 at 1:50 pm

"With ownership comes stewardship."

With ownership also comes property owner's rights.

"But she does point away around preservationists, environmentalists and community activists."

Thank goodness. Maybe the busybodies will now mind their own business?


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

El Camino: Another scheme to increase congestion?
By Douglas Moran | 20 comments | 2,512 views

Couples: Philosophy of Love
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,597 views

Trials of My Grandmother
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 1,128 views

Lakes and Larders (part 2)
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 870 views