News

Council takes the scalpel to the zoning code

Revision creates rules for carports, bike paths

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.

---

Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.

Comments

89 people like this
Posted by GarageGate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2018 at 1:56 am

Last year, Alcheck didn’t have a legal permit to put garage doors on what he called his two carports – but he did so anyway. So he violated the Municipal Code while chair of the city’s Planning Commission. Shouldn’t our commissioners not break our own laws?

Our City staff meanwhile seems to be handing Alcheck special favors. In 2015 they let him put carports in the front when the majority of other carports and garages on his blocks were in the back – our staff couldn’t think of anyone else in town allowed to do that. Staff failed to try to close this loophole before Alcheck could use it. Staff then delayed answering a councilmember who inquired about this. Staff also ignored that Alcheck’s carports were really garages – just with the front doors missing. And when Alcheck filed an appeal in 2017 after the city rejected his permit to install the doors, city staff inexplicably failed to put that appeal on the Council schedule as legally required, handing Alcheck a total victory.

So we have a city planning commissioner who breaks the law and gets lots of special favors. Forget about the swamp in Washington DC. We’ve got our own right here. Our city council needs to clean this up. Pronto.


22 people like this
Posted by Ha, I knew it!
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 20, 2018 at 10:16 am

Interesting that Gennady makes no mention of the City Attorney's statement that none of the commissioners (including Alcheck) had any financial conflict when this item was reviewed at the PTC level. This goes to the heart of Fred Balin's accusations.

Lo and behold, the drumbeat goes on for those that are intent on eliminating any modicum of support for affordable residential housing development from all levels of local government, including the PTC and City Council.

Stay strong Alcheck, they're coming for you and probably your colleagues Mong and Riggs too. You guys have to keep fighting the good fight!


15 people like this
Posted by Jessica Clark
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 20, 2018 at 10:17 am

I wish council would get their priorities straight and put low income and bmr housing first. And nothing else until that is accomplished. I could care less about the vanity of homeowners carports or garages.


17 people like this
Posted by Someone gets it
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 20, 2018 at 10:35 am

Ha,I knew it- glad that you understand what is going on here with regard to the non stop attacks on those that support affordable housing.
And we did not expect gennady to mention the city attorney statement. The weekly serves as the voice for the organized effort to force certain people to exit pubic service.
Read the daily post for unbiased news.


17 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 20, 2018 at 10:47 am

Annette is a registered user.

Do most people monitor their precise bicycling speed? I assumed that we are all supposed to stay within limits that are safe under the circumstances, which of course vary. Sometimes I think we go a little too far with rules and regulations and ordinances. Have common sense and thoughtfulness evaporated?


50 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 20, 2018 at 10:51 am

Yes, they support "affordable" housing, that is, affordable by *high-income* buyers.
More $ for developers.

Alcheck changed the block with his 2 carports, then used his own properties as precedent.
What a scam.


50 people like this
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 20, 2018 at 11:14 am

What Alchek did was unconscionable.


18 people like this
Posted by Ha, I knew it!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 20, 2018 at 11:47 am

The only thing unconscionable is the residentialist effort to ignore the housing crisis in Palo Alto. Fighting against any effort that could help affordable housing developers bring BMR housing to those most in need in our very own city is unconscionable. To disguise the effort by making false accusations against a volunteer who is trying to address the crisis is unconscionable. Need I continue?!?


13 people like this
Posted by David Coale
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 20, 2018 at 11:54 am

Annette, Yes, sometimes I think "we" go too far with regulations. Ride the Bol Park bike path: 40 signs on 1.2 miles of shared pathways. This was done by the path committee in Barron Park, and the city was talked into it. "Common sense" seams to be not so common sometimes.


13 people like this
Posted by BYOSL - Bring Your Own Speed Limit
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 20, 2018 at 1:28 pm

"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."

Imagine if the same logic applied to speed limits on our roads, let's leave it to drivers' common sense to decide how fast to drive. Seems pretty reckless to me.


3 people like this
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2018 at 3:18 pm

BYOSL: That is exactly what we have for speed limits on roads. Speed limits must be set at the 85th percentile of traffic based on a speed survey. There are some exceptions like school zones, but otherwise the assumption is that drivers will go a safe speed. Attempts to change this law have failed for decades.


12 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 20, 2018 at 4:55 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

Fine and Scharff both argued that they don't want to have speed limits on bike paths because it is inconvenient. Safe speeds should be left up to the individual judgement of those riding bikes. Fine also argued against the inconvenience of having to dismount from his bike in the pedestrian-bike tunnels if no one else is present. Since both Fine and Scharff scuttled staff's recommendation on bike safety, we will have to rely on their good judgement that everyone else uses the same good judgement that they do. However, this must not be the case since there have been a number of close encounters between children and bikers on the shared pathway going through Bol Park, which prompted this council discussion.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2018 at 5:10 pm

The big difference between car speed limits and bike speed limits is that cars have a speedometer, bikes don't.

What might be a comfortable cruising speed for a Tesla could be 60mph, but an old classic car might do well at 25, or perhaps even less.

What might be a comfortable speed for a fit bike commuter dressed in lycra who rides Page Mill every weekend is going to be a lot faster than a 10 year old or even a 15 year old with a backpack and perhaps a musical instrument in a basket. Add some rain, or the dark, to the mix and you might see an even bigger difference.

When you get pedestrians and bikes of different categories of riders in the same mix you get problems. Read the Mountain View Voice threads about the Stevens Creek Trail to get a better perspective of the problem. Stevens Creek Trail is a bike highway for commuters to Google, etc. We have bike paths and trails that are not quite in the same category, but we could be getting closer. Believing that all bike riders fit the same description is the first mistake here. The second is expecting common sense.


16 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 20, 2018 at 5:17 pm

Kudos to the council members who did the hard work of going through the code to make sure they are fair and don't violate decent community norms.
It is tedious but necessary work.
Thanks in particular to Karen Holman and Tom DuBois for the attention they gave to our fair governance.


15 people like this
Posted by Harry Merkin
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 20, 2018 at 7:04 pm

"The only thing unconscionable is the residentialist effort to ignore the housing crisis in Palo Alto. Fighting against any effort that could help affordable housing developers bring BMR housing to those most in need in our very own city is unconscionable. To disguise the effort by making false accusations against a volunteer who is trying to address the crisis is unconscionable. Need I continue?!?"

Yes. Please tell us why you think illegal garages are affordable housing.


2 people like this
Posted by Common sense can be developed
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2018 at 11:12 pm

Who is going to measure or enforce speeds on bike paths in Bol Park? I have a hard time believing we have extra law enforcement for same. Does the speed limit also apply to skateboards? Might it be sufficient to put some signs reminding people that children, pets, the elderly, and others also use the path and to use caution?


12 people like this
Posted by Commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 21, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Time for alcheck to go. Behaves like a clever lawyer oh wait he is one ...


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Vegan cafe to land in Mountain View this week
By Elena Kadvany | 8 comments | 3,811 views

How Can We Fund Below Market Rate Housing for Low and Moderate Income Residents in the Region?
By Steve Levy | 31 comments | 1,759 views

College Match
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 748 views

Premarital and Couples: Valentine's Day: Annually or Daily?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 615 views

Piles of artwork
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 191 views

 

Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.

Vote