Royal Manor, a community of more than 200 homes in the Palo Verde neighborhood, is seeking to become the latest Eichler-style enclave to ban new two-story homes -- an effort that is pitting neighbors against one another in a bitter debate about privacy and property rights.
The neighborhood has recently submitted an application for a "single-story overlay," a zoning designation that would prohibit new two-story homes in an area that includes Kenneth Drive, Thomas Drive, Janice Way and sections of Loma Verde Avenue, Louis Road, Greer Road and Stockton Place.
In this case, however, the stakes are larger and the margins are smaller. Whereas both prior applications easily cleared the threshold for resident approval (generally 70 percent; for neighborhoods like Greer Park North, which have deed restrictions that prohibit two-story homes, it is 60 percent), the one from Royal Manor is right at the limit.
When the application was submitted last October, it had signatures of support from 71 percent of the homeowners (144 of 202 properties). Since then, there has been some fluctuation, with some homeowners requesting that their support be withdrawn and others adding their signatures to the list.
When the Planning and Transportation Commission opened its hearing on the proposal Wednesday night, the level of support was at 69 percent and the Council Chambers was split roughly evenly between those who came to support the application and those adamantly opposing it.
Despite some reservations and words of sympathy toward opponents, the commission ultimately voted 4-0 to send the application to the City Council with its stamp of approval. In doing so, however, the four commissioners present Chair Adrian Fine, Vice Chair Pzemak Gardias, Kate Downing and Asher Waldfogel recommended that the council consider removing from the zoning district two peripheral areas in which support for the zone change was particularly low.
The neighborhood crusade against two-story homes began much like prior efforts of this sort: an Eichler home on Louis Road was demolished so that it could be replaced with a two-story home that many feared would be incompatible, intrusive and damaging to the mid-century modern aesthetic of the neighborhood.
In the application, resident Ben Lerner noted that Eichlers were designed to create "a neighborhood with community feeling and backyard privacy."
"We love the low-key, private, single-story character of our Eichler neighborhood and would like it to be preserved," Lerner wrote. "Through our front doors we have easy access to our neighbors, while our backyards are a private extension of our indoor living space. As a neighborhood, we stand together in a shared desire to preserve the privacy and livability of our single-family Eichler homes by restricting second-story construction in our district."
Richard Willits, a Royal Manor resident who represented the applicants' team Wednesday, said residents are particularly concerned about what he calls "two-story tear-downs" -- homes that replace demolished Eichlers and loom over neighboring properties. Eichler homes, he said, were designed to be uniform in style and to interact with each other, forming a real community.
"The reason we and our neighbors signed single-story-overlay applications is because none of us wanted a two-story tear-down next to our house, over the fence from us, or even several houses away," Willits said.
According to the application, a recent proposal to build a two-story home prompted conversations around Royal Manor and other Eichler neighborhoods about new single-story overlay districts. The council paved the way for the recent wave of overlays last year when it agreed to officially scrap the application fee that was previously on the books for the zone change. Within months of this change, Los Arboles and Greer Park North had the new restrictions in place.
In Royal Manor, the desire for the new restriction is far from unanimous. A dozen residents who oppose the change attended the Wednesday hearing and protested the restriction. Zoe Danielson, who lives on Thomas Drive in one of the district's few existing two-story homes, maintained that the change amounts to taking away people's property rights.
"Stealing other people's property rights is stealing. Stealing is not ethical," Danielson said. "It's not OK for a group of people to come together and agree that someone else is going to lose their property rights."
Several speakers testified that they bought their homes in recent years in hopes of raising families and expanding homes, plans that would have to be aborted if the single-story overlay district is installed.
Hobert Tze, who recently bought his home on Loma Verde Avenue, said he and his wife were planning to have children and to eventually build an add-on to meet the family's expanding needs.
"We are very disappointed that we could not plan for this," Tze said. "It kind of caught us by surprise."
Other opponents challenged staff to review the signatures and criticized the petition process. Marjan Aslaghmeyuni said some residents had told her that they signed the petition during a block party, when they were distracted by children. Others complained of pushy signature-gatherers and later admitted that they only signed the petition to avoid confrontation, she said.
After hearing the testimony, Commissioner Downing said she was troubled by the city's existing petition process. The restriction, she said, could in some cases mean "hundreds and thousands of dollars in home value in one way or another." A resident probably would not expect to give up this kind of value by signing a piece of paper presented by a random neighbor who knocks on his or her door.
"If you're going to be making serious decisions about the No. 1 asset that most people in America have, it needs to be on government paper," Downing said. "It needs to be on a letter and a form that the city government sends out."
The commission also proved sympathetic to residents who live on Stockton Place and Loma Verde and who claimed that their blocks aren't actually a part of Royal Manor. Three property owners ended up withdrawing their signatures from the petition, which resulted in only two of nine property owners supporting the overlay.
Siamack Sanaie, who lives on Stockton Place, said almost every house around his is a non-Eichler. He said his lot is smaller than many of the parcels in central Royal Manor. The restriction, he said, would be very costly for his family.
"We are not builders. We are not in the business of flipping houses. ... We came here to raise a family and we bought this place not on the basis of the houses there, but the land and the potential for building," he said, noting that his multi-generation family may require a second-story in the future.
While the commission didn't formally remove Stockton and Loma Verde from the district, it issued a recommendation that the City Council strongly consider doing so.
Fine, who proposed the district change, also included in the motion a recommendation that the petition process be "more efficient and effectively done" for future applications.
The commission also directed planning staff to consider new development standards or "mitigating factors" for homes at the district's boundary. These rules would ostensibly promote designs that ensure privacy for Eichler homes in Royal Manor.