A divisive proposal to ban two-story homes in an Eichler tract in the Palo Verde neighborhood fizzled on Tuesday night when Palo Alto officials deemed the level of support for the ban to be insufficient.
The latest skirmish over building restrictions in Eichler neighborhoods focused on Faircourt tract, which is adjacent to a larger tract called Royal Manor. Earlier this year, Royal Manor barely failed in its way to win a restriction on two-story homes, ultimately falling short of the 60 percent support needed for the change.
On Tuesday, Faircourt suffered the same fate. With support level slipping and the proposed boundaries of the “single-story overlay” district shifting, the majority of the council felt that the zone-change process is too confusing to ensure fairness and that the support is too tepid to warrant the restriction. After some debate, the council voted 6-3 to reject Faircourt's application for an single-story overlay. Councilmen Eric Filseth and Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Karen Holman dissented.
As in the Royal Manor discussion, the council expressed grave concerns about the petition process for obtaining a single-story overlay, a zoning designation that has become increasingly popular in the past year. The process relies on a neighborhood to circulate a petition showing a support of either 60 percent or 70 percent (the former applies if the neighborhood has deed restrictions prohibiting two-story homes). In the case of Faircourt, the 50-property area in the initial petition had 30 supporters, a 60 percent rate, at the time its application was submitted.
But by the time the proposal got to the Planning and Transportation Commission in May, the level slipped to 57 percent and the applicant had volunteered to trim the district to lop off six properties on the district's eastern edge, where opposition is most prevalent.
Within the revised 44-property district, the support level stood at 63 percent as recently as a week ago. Then, over the weekend, three properties on Ross Road withdrew their support, bringing the percentage of support down again.
Proponents of the overlay, Jackie Geist and Roland Finston, proposed carving out Ross Road and approving the ban on two-story homes for the remainder of the district. Both argued that an overlay is an effective way to protect Eichler homes, which are characterized by glass walls, ample windows and spacious backyards, from the privacy impacts of a new two-story home going up across the fence.
“Eichler homes bring the outdoor-to-indoor philosophy in design,” Geist said. “That's why most of us choose them in the first place. Having a two-story house on one side, as we have, brings with it a total lack of privacy to the one-story, with its backyard and walls of glass.
“Backyards and many rooms in the one-story homes are exposed and individual privacy is compromised if not eliminated when a two-story home is built next door or behind you.”
But Ross Road resident Alison Cormack said that there are better ways to protect privacy than outright bans on two-story homes. She also told the council that the neighbors haven't had a chance to discuss the proposed overlay or ask questions about the proposal before being asked “binding decisions with limited information.”
“I just don't think this is an acceptable way to make significant land-use decisions,” Cormack said.
The council wholeheartedly agreed. Earlier this year, members had already directed staff to draft design guidelines which would govern future construction in Eichler neighborhoods. The city is in the process of commissioning a consultant to draft the document, which officials hope will help avert future disputes in Eichler neighborhoods and avoid the need for overlays.
While DuBois, Holman and Schmid sympathized with the petitioners and proposed deferring the decision until progress is made on the broader Eichler-design issues, the majority voted to deny it. Filseth pointed to the “borderline” level of support in explaining his decision to deny.
“I understand what proponents want to do and I appreciate what they've gone through,” Filseth said. “But it's very hard for me to support when 43 percent of the neighborhood doesn't want to do it.”
Councilman Marc Berman and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff both took issues with the process, with Berman calling it “terribly broken” because it “pits neighbors against neighbors.” He called for a process in which residents can make a decision about the zone change in a private setting, with no pressure from neighbors.
“The city needs to play a larger role of regulating the election or overseeing the election and creating an opportunity for neighbors, in privacy of their homes, to decide what decision they want to make on such an important decision,” Berman said. “Neighbors shouldn't feel pressured at a neighborhood block party or by a neighbor who shows up at the door."
Scharff, who made the motion to deny the application, said he was very uncomfortable with the notion of breaking off streets in order to get the needed support levels.
“We want a fair process that's transparent and open -- like we strive to do in the city,” he said. “This doesn't feel like it. It feels like it shifts depending on how we can make it work.”
Where are Palo Alto's single-story overlay districts? Click here to see an interactive map.