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Faircourt feud over two-story homes heads to council

Palo Alto officials to weigh property rights against privacy concerns in the city's latest request for 'single-story overlay'

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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.

Related content:

Palo Alto's Eichler uprising: City looks for ways to promote architectural — and neighborhood — harmony


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12 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 30, 2016 at 11:30 am

I don't think it is fair to limit the height of houses to owners or families who
pay huge amounts to live here .... if ...

1. The addition can pass some kind of successful competent architectural
review that takes the neighbors' fairly into account ... ( dubious )
2. There is sufficient parking and sufficient green space or equivalent to
whatever change is made - which should also include basements or
any other space that can or will be converted to human habitation.

Perhaps there also needs to be some kind of computation as to the
population density and traffic patterns, though I don't expect that traffic
would be much affected by adding in a few second stories.

Having rented in an Eichler where the next door neighbor's house was
two stories and looked down into my yard, I realize this can be a problem,
which is why there should be some kind of review, but if I had owned
that house, I would have wanted the same rights to build up.

It is a difficult question, but a blanket ban just seems unfair to me.

6 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 1, 2016 at 2:07 pm

jh is a registered user.

When some of the Eichler neighborhoods were built there was an an underlying deed restriction on second stories, which I understand is still included somewhere in the title papers when each property is sold. Does anyone know if this is true?

Watching previous council debates on this subject there were various Eichler owners who presented restricting second stories as a hardship. Their parents might want to move in, growing families needing more space, don't want a first story addition taking up backyard space, etc. While in some cases this may be true, my impression was that this more about wanting to add a second story to increase the value of their house. only skylights in second stories, this really is a privacy issue.

Perhaps Eichler neighborhoods could have a special code allowing the house footprint to be increased by reducing the rear setback. Or second floors would only be allowed high windows supplemented with skylights.

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 2, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Marie is a registered user.

If there is a deed restriction, then the council should have the zoning agree with the deed restriction, which I'm sure all owners knew about when they purchased their house. Neighbors should not have to bring an expensive lawsuit to enforce a legal deed restriction which they would almost certainly win, in order for owners to comply with deed restrictions.

1 person likes this
Posted by xPA
a resident of another community
on Oct 2, 2016 at 4:53 pm


You can't seriously want the city to pay for enforcing private contracts.

Having had an Eichler (an unfortunate and expensive adventure in safety upgrades), I have seen the CC&Rs (the deed restrictions) and there is a good chance they are unenforceable. The CC&R's required a regularly meeting neighborhood review board to determine compliance and bring suit. As far as I could tell these boards stopped meeting in the 70s. Some provisions were clearly unenforcable, e.g., no Asians allowed on the premises for purposes other than house keeping.

It was far from clear that the restrictions were not severable and would thus stand or fall together.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2016 at 3:34 am

Been here before and will probably come again.

All second stories in my opinion should only have windows back and front and all bathrooms should have frosted glass. These simple restrictions would all improve privacy for everyone.

However, I find it a ridiculous situation where second units or Granny Flats are being touted by some and banning second stories are being touted by others.

Our neighborhoods cannot become stack and pack housing on the one hand and still retain character and privacy. Those who think they can are not being realistic. We have no rules about parking provisions, utility guarantees or even water allocations. If one of my neighbors builds up high and the neighbor next door builds a granny unit in the back yard, we will end up with another 4 people and another 4 cars minimum, together with increases in water, garbage, etc. etc.

A comprehensive zoning plan has been around for a while and changing these restrictions will undoubtedly cause more problems down the line.

2 people like this
Posted by PAEA
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 3, 2016 at 3:27 pm

This SSO brings enforcement of the existing single story restrictions to the City Planning Department, where it belongs.

Eichler CC&Rs are still in force and are given to every homeowner at purchase by law. Homeowners sometimes ignore them. Eichler neighbors can sue up until the moment of completion of a two story house. No Palo Alto Eichler CC&Rs include racial limitations, on principle, even though such were common at the time.

CC&Rs are viewed by the City Planning Department as outside of their purview. However, CC&Rs are not simple individual contracts, but fall under Home Owners Association law, are registered with the County and enforceable through County courts.

SSOs are part of the existing Comprehensive Plan.

8 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 3, 2016 at 3:51 pm

We just need to rename these neighborhoods "Eichlerland" and become part of the Disneyland chain of parks.

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