Every day, Palo Alto's city planners find themselves in negotiations with homeowners and builders over things like storefront signs, rooftop equipment and basement sizes.
Every once in a while, decisions on these matters prove confusing particularly when the Zoning Code fails to give clear guidance. Such was the case last year when planning staff and the City Council disagreed over what constitutes a "building envelope," a wonky and technical argument that had significant real-world implications for the ongoing renovation of the University Arts building on Hamilton Avenue.
Or when residents in Eichler-style neighborhoods protested earlier this year the fee that the Zoning Code sets for single-story overlay applications (which ban new two-story buildings), noting that this rule clashes with the city's historic practice of not charging for the zone change.
On Monday, the City Council took its first step at remedying these discrepancies by approving a host of zoning changes aimed at removing ambiguities and bringing clarity to the process. In addition, the council added a new policy for how to handle precedent-setting judgment calls down the road.
For a council that has devoted much time and energy this year to updating the city's land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan, Monday's discussion was the flip side of the land-use coin. Rather than grapple with broad vision statements and long-term goals, council members zoomed in on the fine print of local zoning regulations to address policies that were flagged by staff as ambiguous and in need of revision or clarification.
The meeting focused on what planning staff characterized as "tier one" (the least controversial) proposals ones that don't set any new policies but rather codify existing practices, fix typos and make the code more clear and internally consistent.
Yet the council also considered several policies that were deemed more complex and controversial including one that would reduce the number of "findings" in the city's architectural-review process and agreed to consider them in the near future.
Though billed as minor and non-controversial, several items entailed substantial discussion and debate during a hearing that stretched for more than four hours and left several council members exhausted and calling for continuance.
One change that the council approved was a provision that explicitly grants the planning director the power to approve Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), state-mandated studies that analyze impacts of new developments and policies. This power has traditionally rested with the council, which will still have the ability to review any EIR decisions with significant policy implications.
Another "small" change with potentially big implications is one that would effectively turn a planner's interpretation of the city code for a particular project into an official precedent that would be used for other projects going forward. With the change, once staff makes an interpretation, it would be written down, posted on the city's website and barring an appeal become the city's official position.
Assistant Planning Director Jonathan Lait, who is leading the zone-change process, framed the change as a move to bolster transparency.
"We want to be able to write that interpretation down, present it to the community in a transparent way and give the opportunity for people to appeal that within a 14-day period," Lait said. "If people don't appeal, that would be the law of the land."
Council members had some concerns about this new rule and concluded that they should also have a role to play in the process.
Councilman Tom DuBois said he would like to see "broader public notices" and some method for the new interpretations and clarifications to come before the council.
After some discussion, the council agreed that staff reports for particular projects should specify when a formal interpretation has been made. The council also asked staff to submit a quarterly report detailing all the written interpretations staff has made in the preceding quarter.
The proposal to formally give the planning director the power to approve EIRs also generated significant discussion, as well as some opposition from local land-use watchdogs residents. Jeff Levinsky argued against making any changes that would shift decision-making authority away from the City Council and toward planning staff. Such policies, he argued, would give staff "more power to keep decision hidden."
"We ask you to reject all language in the ordinance that would reduce transparency, weaken council control and undercut the laws already in place," Levinsky said.
College Terrace resident Doria Summa also said she has concerns about the proposed changes that would give more power to the planning director.
"I understand it's put there to make things more efficient and move more urgently, but it makes decisions behind close doors as opposed to at a public hearing," Summa said. "At present time there isn't a reliable way to inform the public about a director's decision in advance, in case they have concerns about them."
City staff rejected this characterization and framed the change as one that both reflects current practice and makes local policies better aligned with the guidelines in the California Environmental Quality Act. A report from planning staff pointed to a recent court decision holding that this environmental authority "should be expressly included in the zoning code."
Senior Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver told the council on Monday that the existing city policy is based on old guidelines. She also stressed that environmental reports that show significant impacts that cannot be mitigated (and would thus require a "statement of overriding consideration" for project approval) would still go to the council.
"The planning director shouldn't make EIR decisions when you have to balance policy decisions. However, an EIR that doesn't involve a statement of overriding consideration, we think those should be properly passed by the planning director in the first instance and, if there is an appeal, the appeal can go to the City Council," Silver said.
The council agreed on Monday to approve the change. Council members also swiftly approved a proposal to remove the fee for "single-story overlays" from the Zoning Code, a move consistent with its decision in June to make these applications free.
Members were more cautious, however, on a different proposal that would reduce the number of architectural findings that have to be made for approval for a project. Currently, the city's architectural-review process requires officials to make 15 findings to approve a project. These include determinations that the project is compatible with its surroundings, appropriate for the site, includes adequate open space and offers "safe and convenient" access for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.
Staff is proposing that this list of 15 be pared down to six. The new list would still focus on the design's compatibility with local laws and policies and require "high aesthetic quality," an "internal sense of order," adequate landscaping and design principles that promote sustainability.
In explaining the recommendation to trim the list, Lait said "there is a lot of fatigue in having to write so many findings about a project." Many existing findings are repetitive, he said, and increase review time for projects.
The council, however, wasn't ready to make such a significant change so quickly. Mayor Karen Holman, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and DuBois all argued that this topic should require more deliberation. The council voted 8-0, with Councilman Pat Burt absent, to move this discussion to a later meeting.
"I support the idea of reducing the number of findings, but I find it to be a substantial policy change and I didn't have time to absorb them all," DuBois said. "I think it really warrants some discussion."
With most of the least controversial changes now approved, the council will next shift its focus on some of the more substantive proposals, including ones that limit the size of new basements; require restaurants to include rooftop-dining areas in parking requirements; provide density bonuses for retrofits of seismically deficient buildings; and clarify the rules for where a new garage could be placed.
The council acknowledged that Monday's marathon discussion is only the beginning of what promises to be a complex, multi-year process.
"Frankly, it's going get more complicated as we get to more complicated issues," Councilman Marc Berman said. "I think we're off to a good start."