For some residents of Faircourt, an Eichler tract in the Palo Verde neighborhood, a ban on two-story homes is the best way to promote architectural harmony.
For others, it's the surest way to stoke neighborhood discord.
On Tuesday night, the City Council will be the judge. That's when council members will consider the neighborhood's proposal to create a "single-story overlay district," a zoning designation that prohibits new two-story homes and second floors and that has become increasingly popular in the past year. The application from Faircourt follows similar requests from the Eichler neighborhoods of Los Arboles and Greer Park North, both of which succeeded last year in securing the overlay districts, and from the nearby community of Royal Manor, whose quest faltered after the level of homeowners' support dipped just below the needed threshold of 60 percent.
The idea of residents seeking to restrict their own property rights to protect their privacy is far from new in the Eichler enclaves of Palo Alto. Between 1992 and 2004, the city approved nine single-story overlay districts. Then, after a decade without approving any new applications (Fairmeadow tried but failed to get enough support), the council has recently been confronted with a slew of requests. The council's decision last year to formally waive the application fee that the city had required (but had not, in fact, been collecting) may have contributed to the resurgence.
The argument for the single-story overlay is, by now, very familiar for council members and land-use watchdogs and neighborhood activists. Because Eichlers are built to "bring the outside in" through design features like sliding glass doors, floor-to-ceiling windows and sprawling backyards, second floors are seen by many as antithetical that indoor/outdoor lifestyle. As Faircourt resident and overlay supporter Harold Poskanzer told the Planning and Transportation Commission in April, the issue is primarily one of privacy.
"When we bought our house 16 years ago the outside space was just as important to us as the inside space, and a major factor in the outside space was its privacy," Poskanzer said. "We spend a lot of time back there. We put a hot tub back there. And frankly, the thought of a two-story house looming over us as we try to soak is rather upsetting for people who love Eichlers like us and people who love the Eichler style."
But while some see two-story homes and second-story additions as blights on the Eichler aesthetic, others note that these enlarged homes are often needed to accommodate growing and multi-generational families. Many opponents of the single-story overlay see it as a blunt tool that severely, and unnecessarily, takes away residents' property rights. At one of the planning commission hearings, Faircourt resident Alison Cormack said she is perfectly happy with her one-story Eichler but argued that changing the rules retroactively about how other homeowners deal with their properties is inappropriate.
"There are much less restrictive ways to preserve the open space feel in our backyards," Cormack said, noting that a two-story home next to her house is a "thoughtful addition that does not affect my backyard or raise any privacy concerns."
The debate in Faircourt closely mirrors the one in Royal Manor, where the petition for the zone change initially cleared the 60 percent threshold of approval of homeowners but then dropped. Just like in the larger subdivision, support in Faircourt dipped after the signature-gathering drive. When the Planning and Transportation Commission considered the Faircourt application in May, support was at 59 percent.
The borders of Faircourt's proposed single-story-overlay district have also changed since the application was first submitted to the city, with the applicants agreeing to eliminate six properties abutting Talisman Drive from the district, bringing the number of properties down from 50 to 44. The six homes are different from the rest of the tract because they all back up to houses that are not Eichlers, according to Roland Finston, one of the applicants. As such, Finston explained in an email to the city, the six property owners would be giving up their rights to a second story but not receive the same benefit from their backyard neighbors, who would not be part of the district.
The proposed overlay area is now bounded by Louis and Ross roads and Talisman.
In making its decision, the council will have to weigh the vote of the planning commission, which denied the application, against the opinion of city planning staff, which is recommending approval based on a resurgence of neighborhood support. According to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment, several property owners have changed their votes since last spring, and as a result, the current support level is at 63.6 percent.
Aside from the Faircourt request, city planners are undertaking a parallel process that they hope will obviate future disputes over building heights in Eichler neighborhoods. When the council voted in May to deny Royal Manor's application, citing concerns over the signature-gathering process and the declining level of support, council members also directed staff to draft Eichler-specific design guidelines. Once completed, these guidelines would help property owners design homes that are consistent with the Eichler aesthetic and that do not intrude on the privacy of neighbors.
Planning staff is currently negotiating a contract with a consultant to help develop these guidelines, according to the new report from the planning department.
Where are Palo Alto's single-story overlay districts? Click here to see an interactive map.