What began as an effort to promote harmony and protect the privacy of Royal Manor residents has devolved into a full-fledged neighborhood battle over property rights, aesthetic preferences and the very nature of democracy.
The south Palo Alto neighborhood, which includes about 200 homes, is in the midst of applying for a "single-story overlay," a type of zoning that expressly bans new two-story homes and second-floor add-ons in neighborhoods dominated by houses developed by Joseph Eichler. In recent months, the City Council approved such restrictions in the Los Arboles and Greer Park North tracts. In each case, residents had submitted a petition signed by more than 70 percent of the homeowners, the minimum threshold necessary for the change. (In areas where two-story homes are restricted by deed, the threshold is 60 percent.)
Royal Manor, which includes Kenneth Drive, Thomas Drive, Janice Way and sections of Loma Verde Avenue, Louis Road, Greer Road and Stockton Place, was on its way to a similar change. In February, the Planning and Transportation Commission recommended moving ahead with the application despite opposition from a sizable minority of residents. The council will consider the application on Monday, April 18.
Since the February commission meeting, opposition to the zoning overlay has continued to swell, with 17 residents switching their votes from "yes" to "no." While in February, the level of support was at 70 percent, the recent defections have plunged it to about 63 percent.
Some of the residents now say that at the time they signed the petition, they weren't familiar with the issue and unaware that a signature solicited at a block party would effectively bar them from expanding their homes upward in the future. Others say they believed that their signature would make it possible for the neighborhood to place the issue on the ballot -- not that it would be interpreted as the ballot itself.
Some opponents have reported threats and insults from neighbors who support the zone change. They have also hired a lawyer and are looking into taking legal action against the city if the council approves the change despite the fading support and the "misinformation" that they believe they've been subjected to by overlay supporters.
For the majority's side, the case is simple: Eichler neighborhoods were designed as communities, with each home equipped with yard space and featuring glass walls that blend indoor and outdoor living. They point to instances in which an Eichler was torn down and replaced with a two-story home with windows that allowed intrusion into the privacy of the neighboring Eichlers, effectively nullifying the very thing that makes the homes special.
In presenting the overlay application to the planning commission, resident Richard Willits said that a "teardown, when it occurs, is a cataclysmic event in an Eichler neighborhood." Usually, he said, the house that ends up on the street is not in the same Midcentury Modern style. Willits said the Eichler neighborhood has a "sense of togetherness," with seniors, young families and multi-generational households. He feared that if two-story teardowns occur, current residents will move out.
"We don't want this for our neighborhood," Willits said.
Other supporters similarly frame the issue as a way to foster neighborhood harmony and cohesiveness. Diane Reklis, a Janice Way resident, wrote in a letter to the city that the houses in the neighborhood "were designed with lots of glass to allow the owners to enjoy the outdoors while privacy fences prevent invasive stares."
"If my neighbor's house was two stories high, the glass walls would be a nuisance rather than a blessing as others would suddenly have full view into my living spaces," Reklis wrote. "If I built a second story on my house, I might be able to sell it for more money, but at least six neighbors would be negatively impacted by the loss of privacy and daylight AND the value of their houses would likely be diminished, at least until they too built up. The single story overlay is essential to maintain our neighborhood."
But what some see as an instrument to promote harmony, others see as divisive, heavy-handed and unnecessary. Venkat Dokiparthi, who lives on Greer Road and who opposes the overlay, told the Weekly that the city's process has effectively "put neighbors against each other." Supporters of the overlay often characterize opponents as newcomers who come to Royal Manor so that they can "buy and flip the houses for profit." That, he said, is just wrong.
"Many of the people in the neighborhood are not like that," he said. "They came in with small children and they want to build their families here."
Dokiparthi said he bought his house 16 years ago, with the expectation of raising a family in a good school district. Though he hasn't expanded his house, he likes having the option of possibly doing so in the future.
Narayanan Murugesan and Sridevi Narayanan, who also live on Janice Way, are among the residents who are seeking to remove their signatures from the petition circulated last year at the block party. In a Feb. 28 letter to the city, they noted that they signed to "show our support for community sentiment to go to ballot ... (and certainly didn't think our signature would be wrongfully used in lieu of a legal ballot)."
"As recent residents with two young children and aging parents who moved here with a long-term mindset, we want to make sure that we have the flexibility to expand our home sufficiently in the coming years. Therefore, we would like to fully understand the ramifications of SSO (single-story overlay) for our particular lot and house before we make a decision," the letter stated.
Others offered similar sentiments. Beth Marer-Garcia wrote that she was led to believe from an informational letter that any signature on the petition would "simply serve as a basic show of support, and if at least 70 percent of the neighbors signed the petition only then could the second-story application process begin." The door-to-door collection of signatures, she wrote, is "subject to misrepresentation and misinformation by each party."
"For the council to actually rule on this critical matter without formal consideration seems irresponsible and could very well put the City of Palo Alto and our tax dollars at risk of litigation," Marer-Garcia said.
Zoe Danielson, who also lives in Royal Manor and opposes the overlay, called the process "a betrayal of democracy" and said the city is "lurching toward litigation." Danielson wrote in a letter to City Attorney Molly Stump that many residents were "victims of coercion" who were told, after the vote, that their signature was "irrevocable."
Amid this climate of acrimony, it will be up to the council to determine whether to proceed with the overlay proposal, as recommended by the planning commission; to halt the process; or to revise the boundaries of the proposed district to omit the peripheral sections where opposition runs deepest. In February, the planning commission included in its motion language strongly recommending that the council consider removing from the proposed overlay the segments of Stockton and Loma Verde that make up the edge of the tract, where support for the zone change is lower.
At the Feb. 10 meeting, residents on these streets talked about constraints that they already face on their properties. Some properties have small yards and special setback requirements that make additions on the first floor next to impossible. And are located in the flood zone, which means they cannot build basements.
These arguments are reiterated in a letter from Andrew Pierce, an attorney from the firm Pierce & Shearer, which is representing the residents.
"The city could end up freezing the properties with square footages that are far below those that families have been seeking in Palo Alto," Pierce wrote.
Pierce also pointed to an FAQ document that proponents of the overlay sent out during the signature-gathering process, which suggested that the signature would only be an initial step in the decision-making process. The FAQ noted that the city will "send postcards to all affected homeowners, asking if they support or oppose the single-story overlay."
"If someone doesn't return their card it counts as a No vote," the FAQ document stated.
Though a subsequent FAQ later corrected this information, Pierce argued in his letter that the residents "were led to believe that they were agreeing to put the issue to a neighborhood vote."
At least one planning commissioner sympathized with this view at the February meeting. Kate Downing took issue with a process in which residents can sign away their property rights by a neighborhood petition.
"I would not expect to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars by signing a petition that a random neighbor brings over to my house while I'm trying to cook dinner and feed my child," Downing said.