A divided crowd of Royal Manor residents packed into Palo Alto City Hall on Monday night to argue for and against a proposed ban on two-story homes a measure that many characterized as essential to protecting the Eichler character of the neighborhood and that many others panned as a heavy-handed assault on their property rights.
The issue, which is pitting neighbor against neighbor in the 203-home tract in the Palo Verde neighborhood, will reignite in two weeks, when the City Council concludes its public hearing and considers whether to approve Royal Manor's application for "single-story overlay."
The zone change, which is supported by more than 60 percent of the neighborhood, prohibits new two-story homes and second-story additions. If it wins approval, Royal Manor will become the third Eichler neighborhood in the past year to win the restriction, following in the footsteps of Los Arboles and Greer Park North.
Royal Manor's quest, however, has been complicated by an eroding level of support and more than a dozen homeowners requesting that their signatures on the application be revoked. The level of neighborhood support, which was right at the threshold of 70 percent when the Planning and Transportation Commission discussed the proposal in February, dipped to 64 percent by Monday night. The crowd of speakers prompted the City Council to defer any decisions until a second hearing on May 2.
Opponents of the overlay criticized the proposed zone change on philosophical, practical and procedural grounds. Some spoke out against the idea of having their property rights curtailed, particularly given that their homes are already in the flood zone, where basement construction is prohibited.
Others said they like having the option of expanding their homes to accommodate children or parents in the future. Still others objected to the way signatures were gathered for the petition process, and urged the council not to make a decision until it can more accurately gauge the level of neighborhood support.
Equipped with yellow posters and buttons that said, "SSO NO," opponents argued that the move would particularly hurt young families with small children and residents for whom sharing a home with an aged parent is a cultural norm.
Ze'ev Wurman, who lives on Stockton Place, said the zone change would encourage "geriatrification" in the neighborhood. Wurman said he himself added the second story to accommodate the growth of his family. The community, he said, "slowly develops and changes."
"It is not frozen in amber as some people would like it," Wurman said.
Others claimed that proponents of the overlay misled them with an inaccurate FAQ document, which suggested that a signature would only lead to a ballot vote (an amended FAQ, with a clarification, was mailed a month later).
Jing Chen, who lives on Thomas Drive, said the flier was misleading and the decision on two-story homes should be made through a "legal and properly executed process."
Zoe Danielson said signatures were collected "through pressure and misleading information."
"Many more would've revoked their signatures if there was comprehensive outreach to all 202 houses," Danielson said.
For the many supporters of the overlay, the key issue is privacy. A typical Eichler is a single-story building with ample windows and a glass wall facing the backyard. An adjacent two-story house, proponents argue, would enable those neighbors to see into others' back yards and through glass walls into living quarters.
David Hanzel, speaking on behalf of a group of overlay supporters, said that neighbors want the zoning change so that "the integrity of the neighborhood is protected."
"The essence of an Eichler is to move in and out to seamlessly connect inside and out," Hanzel said. "We live in glass bowls."
Other residents told horror stories of "monster homes" going up near Eichlers. Jackie Angelo Geist said her family was negatively affected by a monster home that was built behind her house on Louis Road. And Olivier Matthey, a resident of Janice Way, wrote in an email to the council that he has seen first-hand "houses torn down to be replaced with out-of-place mansions, not by neighbors themselves, but by builders who put personal profit ahead of the harmony of our community."
"Apparently, existing protections have failed to discourage, let alone prevent, such harmful practices. This is why I feel that an SSO is needed, to protect what has made this neighborhood such a great place to live," Matthey wrote.
The council's decision on the single-story overlay could extend well beyond Royal Manor (which includes Kenneth Drive, Thomas Drive, Janice Way and sections of Loma Verde Avenue, Louis Road, Greer Road and Stockton Place). The controversy over signatures raised concerns from the Planning and Transportation Commission and from planning staff, which recommended in a new report taking a fresh look at the application process for single-story overlays
"If the city is to continue processing SSO applications, it is clear that the existing procedures established by the Code need to be examined and recommendations made for improving this process," according to the report. "An application such as this should be community building and reflect a significant percentage of like-minded owners interested in preserving their neighborhood in a defined manner."