Palo Alto's elected leaders set aside their lofty debate on growth and transportation Monday night to consider less weighty questions, including: What exactly is a carport? And should bike-paths have speed limits?
As part of its annual code update, the City Council approved more than two dozen nitty-gritty changes to the zoning code, governing such issues as: How far should an outdoor fireplace be from the neighboring property? Should bike paths have speed limits? And what exactly is the difference between a carport and a garage?
Though mostly minor, some of the 28 changes effectively created new policies. The council decided, for instance, to institute a speed limit for bicyclists on bike paths -- but only when other people are present on the paths. They also agreed that a carport should be clearly defined as a parking space that is at least 50 percent open on two or more sides, including the entry side, and covered with a solid roof.
The council also specified in a zoning revision that, for permitting purposes, carports will be treated just like garages. With this change, the council and planning staff sought to address the loophole that allows a building owner to construct a carport in the portion of the property where a garage isn't allowed and then convert the carport into a garage.
The two-step process was recently employed by Planning and Transportation Commissioner Michael Alcheck at two properties in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood. In 2015, Alcheck constructed two homes with carports on Phillips Road and Madison Way -- structures that went up after planning staff had concluded that front-facing garages would violate the city's code on "contextual" placement. The staff finding was based on the fact that the prevailing neighborhood pattern on the two blocks had garages in the rear.
As the Weekly reported last week, Alcheck subsequently converted the carports to garages on the basis that the new carports had effectively removed any prevailing neighborhood pattern. Though staff had initially prohibited the conversion of carports to garages, it relented after Alcheck hired an attorney and demanded instant issuance of permits for the new structures, which he completed last week.
Earlier this month, resident Fred Balin filed a complaint against Alcheck, alleging that he had a conflict of interest when he participated in commission discussions of carports and garages in 2015 and earlier this year.
While the council's discussion focused on the zoning code -- not on the complaint -- several council members made it clear that the Alcheck episode was on their minds. Councilman Tom DuBois wondered if the planning commission discussion was "tainted" and proposed making the definition of carport a structure that it at least 80 percent open on two or more sides.
While planning staff had proposed 50 percent, DuBois argued that someone could game the system by installing large windows to create garages posing as carports.
"I think the threshold should be a little higher so people won't be gaming the threshold," DuBois said.
His proposal to raise the threshold to 80 percent fell by a 4-1 vote, with Scharff dissenting. The council then unanimously approved the staff proposal, with 50 percent coverage.
Council members had a harder time finding compromise on new rules about outdoor barbecues and fireplaces. The current zoning code has no rules about where these structures should be placed within an interior yard. Planning staff and Fire Department officials recommended a setback of 4 feet from the interior side and rear property line.
In discussing the code changes, the council faced a rare dilemma: unanimity or bust. It was reduced to five members by a combination of illness (which kept Mayor Liz Kniss, Councilman Cory Wolbach and Councilwoman Lydia Kou from the meeting) and travel plans (which kept Councilman Greg Tanaka away). Because it takes a majority of five to pass an ordinance, every vote had to win the support of every council member present.
On the issue of firepits, the challenge of getting to five was too steep. DuBois and Karen Holman both made a case for increasing the mandatory setback to 6 feet. Other colleagues felt that's too restrictive and suggested 3 to 5 feet.
"We're balancing this setback issue against the value of Palo Altans being able to put barbecues, chimneys or firepits as they see fit," said Councilman Adrian Fine, who was in the latter camp.
In the end, neither side was able to sway the other. Councilman Greg Scharff proposed moving ahead with the staff recommendation of a 4-foot setback but DuBois and Holman dissented. They then considered a 6-foot setback, which fell by a 4-1 vote, with Scharff being the lone dissenter. The disagreement over the specifics means that the city has no setback requirement at all.
"The city will not regulate this. Libertarians worldwide rejoice!" Vice Mayor Eric Filseth quipped at the end of the discussion.
The spirit of consensus returned when the council took up bike paths. Prompted by concerns from Barron Park about the Bol Park path near Gunn High School, staff had proposed a 15-mph speed limit on shared-use bikeways. DuBois and Holman both favored this threshold, while Fine argued that it's too low. Ultimately, the council agreed to institute the speed limit, but having it only apply when other bicyclists or pedestrians are present.
"We expect people to use some common sense here," Fine said.