For Adrienne Germain, Palo Alto's raging debate over accessory-dwelling units feels particularly personal.
She was raised by a single mom, a teacher who allowed a tenant to move into a room in her house so that she could afford Germain's college tuition at the University of California Santa Barbara. Today, Germain is facing a different challenge: her mother-in-law has multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells, and can no longer work.
Accessory-dwelling units -- also known as "granny" units -- could've helped her with her prior challenge, she told the council Monday night. It can also aid her in the current one.
"We'd add an ADU in our backyard," Germain told the council. "This would allow us to remain in our community and also allow us to take care of her."
Neva Yarkin, a resident of Churchill Avenue, is also paying close attention to the issue. More than 30 years ago, a neighbor built a two-story home overlooking her backyard and living room. Shortly thereafter, a neighbor on the other side built a two-story townhouse with a window looking into her kitchen.
"I have no windows in my house that neighbors can't see into," Yarkin told the council Monday night.
Germain and Yarkin were among the crowd of more than 200 people who flocked to City Hall on Monday to either praise the City Council's recent move to ease restrictions on accessory-dwelling units or to blast the council for an action that they argued would threaten local neighborhoods. Many argued that accessory-dwelling units are a small, but critical solution to the city's housing problem. Others called the council's action reckless, misguided and inconsiderate of privacy concerns and other impacts on local neighborhoods.
With dozens of people sounding off on the subject and more than a hundred submitting emails, the council agreed to reopen the discussion that members thought concluded on March 7, when they approved the new ordinance. And after much debate, the council approved early Tuesday morning a modified version of the ordinance -- one that restores some of the restrictions that were scrapped last month while eliminating others.
The winning motion, which was approved by a 7-2 vote with Karen Holman and Lydia Kou in dissent, restricts accessory-dwelling units to lots greater than 5,000 square feet -- a compromise between the current code, which only allows these units on lots that are at least 35 percent greater than the minimum lot size, and the March 7 revision, which eliminated the lot-size requirement entirely.
The council also agreed to restore language that prohibits homeowners from orienting the doors of the accessory-dwelling units in the same alignment as those of the main house. It directed staff to consider design guidelines for these units in Eichler neighborhoods and to explore ways to make sure that residents who build accessory-dwelling units don't get extra residential parking permits for these dwellings.
Yet the council also declined to reverse its March decision to eliminate all parking requirements for accessory-dwelling units. It also rejected a council member's proposal to require that the smaller units resemble the main house in design. Both proposed changes fizzled by 4-5 votes, with the five council members more amenable to growth prevailing over the four with more slow-growth leanings.
Despite the factional splits on these particular issues, the bulk of the motion was crafted through a largely bipartisan approach, with Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Tom DuBois doing most of the legislative heavy-lifting. During its discussion, the council largely mirrored the community, with just about everyone saying that accessory-dwelling units are a good idea but disagreeing over the best way to promote them without adding parking problems, privacy violations and Airbnb rentals into single-family neighborhoods.
For many of the residents who opposed the March decision, the process was more troubling than the product. Even though the council has been talking about encouraging such units for more than two years, few residents had expected the council to go as far as it had in March. Staff had recommended revising the code largely to comport with a new state law, which -- among other things -- eliminates parking requirements for accessory-dwelling units in transit-rich areas. The council, led by Cory Wolbach and Adrian Fine, went further and eliminated them in all areas.
Some critics contended that by going so far beyond staff recommendations, the council acted rashly and recklessly in approving an ordinance that no one in the community had a chance to review. Land-use watchdog Bob Moss called the March decision, which happened in the late hours of the night, a "classic example of midnight madness." Jennifer Hetterly, a former parks commissioner, told the council that it is making "a mockery of informed public comment."
"This is not about ADUs or fairness or social justice," Hetterly said. "It's about good government and public trust. We all deserve and should get better form our public officials."
Former Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell made a similar point and argued that it would be improper to adopt the changes championed in March by Fine and Wolbach "without a thorough analysis and public comments."
"It's the right thing to do, legally and morally," Cordell said.
But Gail Price, also a former council member, took the opposite view and said she supports the new ordinance. Price attended the meeting and was also one of more than 100 people who submitted correspondence in support of the new ordinance.
"Being more flexible will result in a more inclusive and diverse community," Price wrote. "Other communities in the area have done similar work to help their communities and reduce the housing deficit. Once again, this is your opportunity for a legacy vote that is thoughtful and pro-active."
Sophia Berger also said she supports the new rules and rejected the notion that the small units will substantially alter the city's character.
"It's not a silver bullet but it's one piece of the puzzle," Berger said.
After more than two hours of testimony from both sides, the council agreed that it needed to revisit its decision. DuBois initially proposed moving ahead with an ordinance that meets the new state requirements, but deferring all other provisions to a later date, after staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission had a chance to review them.
"We should be honest with each other -- those were some major changes," DuBois said, referring to the March vote. "We should all support objective, considered analysis. ... There's clearly disagreement in the community. That's really why we should spend some time and make sure we study this as much as we can."
But after adding a numerous amendments that softened some of the most controversial aspects of the March ordinance, DuBois went along with Scharff and the council majority, which preferred to immediately approve an ordinance that goes beyond the state requirements -- though not as far as the one that was approved in March.
The council also directed staff to provide quarterly updates on new accessory-dwelling units so that it can address any unexpected impacts.
Fine, one of the council's most vocal housing advocates, noted that housing is "clearly an issue of contention in this community" and argued that accessory-dwelling units can serve seniors, disabled children and other residents who may have trouble finding housing in Palo Alto otherwise.
"I hope we can do something special and makes sure Palo Alto remains an inclusive, diverse and multi-generational community," Fine said.
Kou agreed with Fine that housing -- particularly, affordable housing -- is important. But, she added, "just going schizophrenic in building is not the way to go either."
The city has to consider the unintended consequences that come around with greatly expanding its housing stock, she said.
"No one said we're not supporting ADUs and no one said we're for 'no growth.'" Kou said. "It's sensible growth. It's reasonable growth. It's planned growth so that we don't have parking issues, we don't have school impacts, we don't have infrastructure problems and we don't have traffic congestion."