As Palo Alto officials prepare to rule on a contentious proposal to ban new two-story homes and additions in the Eichler community of Royal Manor, a similar debate is starting to surface nearby, in a 50-home tract known as Faircourt.
Much like Royal Manor, which has 203 homes, Faircourt is dominated by single-story Eichlers and a resident majority that would like to keep it that way. Just like in Royal Manor, supporters of the ban have mustered just enough votes to bring the application to the city. And, in another striking similarity between the two applications, the level of support dropped just below the threshold between the time the application was filed and the time it came to the Planning and Transportation Commission for review.
Given the similar issues, the planning commission agreed on Wednesday not to move ahead with the proposed "single-story overlay" for Faircourt just yet but to defer the decision until May 11. Its discussion at that meeting is expected to be informed by what the City Council does on May 2, when it is expected to rule on the Royal Manor proposal.
In seeking the overlay, residents of Faircourt laid out an argument much like the one espoused by residents of Royal Manor, Greer Park North and Los Arboles in recent months (the latter two neighborhoods succeeded in getting their petitions for the overlay approved). The designs of Eichler homes, they say, emphasize the connection between indoors and outdoors, as evidenced by glass floor-to-ceiling doors and walls leading to backyards.
As Faircourt resident Jacqueline Angelo Geist told the commission Wednesday, the design was intended to invite residents to enjoy the California lifestyle without exposing themselves to neighbors next door. Geist said she supports the overlay "on the grounds of preserving our neighborhood as it was intended and keeping it aesthetically uniform."
The tract, which is just south of Royal Manor, includes segments of Ross Road and Louis Road, as well as the streets between the two roads: Talisman Drive, Evergreen Drive, Thornwood Drive, Arbutus Drive (between Thornwood and Talisman) and one property on Lupine Avenue.
Geist, an Evergreen resident, wrote in the application that Faircourt residents "share in the appreciation of our Eichler home(s) and a commitment to maintain our privacy and daylight as well as the unique design and character of our historical neighborhood."
Not everyone is thrilled about the plan. Mark Delman, who lives on Thornwood, told the commission Wednesday that the proposal is "draconian" and criticized the overlay plan for infringing on residents' property rights.
"A second story is not some kind of an unusual thing," Delman said. "It's a reasonable thing for a homeowner to want. And I want to preserve that right as a homeowner, as I had it before, and as a buyer from me at some point will want as well."
Because Faircourt already has deed restrictions that limit heights to a single story (these restrictions, while on the books, have not been enforced by the city), the application needed approval from only 60 percent of the property owners to be considered by the commission. Eichler neighborhoods without such restrictions, including Royal Manor, need 70 percent.
In Faircourt's case, the petition drive succeeded in getting exactly 60 percent, with 30 out of 50 property owners adding their signatures the overlay effort. But on Tuesday night, just a day before the commission's hearing, a property owner on Talisman emailed city staff to reverse his position, dropping the support level to 58 percent.
Technically, the petition could still proceed because the 60 percent threshold needs to met at the time of the application submittal (as opposed to the time of the review). The commission, however, agreed that a zone change this significant should not hinge on a technicality. Given that Royal Manor faced a similar issue (support level dropped below 70 percent after the application was submitted), commissioners agreed to resume its hearing on Faircourt after the council rules on the Royal Manor application.
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum noted the razor-thin margin of support for an action that he called "fairly dramatic."
"Coming in exactly at the threshold level, I think, is a cause for consternation. ... It has a fairly dramatic effect on your rights. This is serious. Let's take it seriously," Rosenblum said.
His colleagues agreed, with Commission Michael Alcheck arguing that the city should not ignore a "buzzer-beating email" retracting support and questioned whether the petition really meets the legal thresholds.
"If we want to ignore that on a technicality -- that seems to me an illegitimate reason," Alcheck said.
After a brief discussion, the commission voted 5-0, with Chair Adrian Fine and Commissioner Greg Tanaka absent, to move the discussion to May 11.