Responding to residents' calls for greater privacy protections, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday revised the zoning code to limit the height of new
nonresidential buildings within 150 feet of residential areas, even areas designated for higher density.
The City Council voted 6-1, with Vice Mayor Lydia Kou dissenting, to adjust the section of the zoning code that deals with height transitions, which governs how tall buildings can be in commercial zones that are close to residential zones. The new language adds the RM-40 district, which allows developments with up to 40 dwellings per acre, to the list of zoning districts that fall under a rule that was previously reserved for areas with lower density.
The Monday revision also clarifies that the rule for lower heights applies within 150 feet of a residential zone. Whereas the city typically has a height limit of 50 feet for new developments, under this rule the permitted height would be decreased to 35 feet for projects within 150 feet of a residential zone, even if the properties don't abut.
The Monday zone change was part of the council's broader effort to adopt new "objective standards" for new developments, a move spurred by state legislation that makes it harder for cities to deny approval for developments based on subjective criteria. It was also a response to residents in residential zones close to El Camino Real and California Avenue who argued that their zoning districts should get similar protections from large buildings in nearby zones that other districts do.
Terry Holzemer, who lives at Palo Alto Central, a condominium complex on California Avenue, said he and other residents feel like they're "under threat" when existing rules don't apply to their district, which is zoned for higher density.
"I think we should be treated the same way as all sections of town and we should have our zone mentioned as well," Holzemer said.
While the council action aimed to respond to these concerns, the new rule includes key exceptions. First, the reduced height limit only applies to nonresidential buildings. Requiring a similar rule for housing projects would amount to "downzoning" residential areas, which city officials said could run afoul of state laws and threaten the city's ability to produce needed housing.
In addition, a developer can request an exception to the 150-foot transition zone, which would require approvals from the Architectural Review Board and the planning director. Residents would also have an opportunity to appeal any project that gets the required approval to the council.
Not everyone supported the appeal process. Kou said the process proposed by staff puts an undue burden on residents to monitor nearby developments so that they can file timely appeals. And while planning staff said it's not unusual for other cities to treat residential districts with higher densities different from single-family districts, Kou argued that Palo Alto should place a high priority on protecting the privacy and living standards of its residents.
"I hear of complaints of neighbors (where) a neighbor is talking on the phone or doing a Zoom meeting and they can hear it at their homes," Kou said.
She proposed a list of adjustments to the zoning code that eliminate the exceptions proposed by staff. Many of her proposals were in line with the recommendations from Jeff Levinsky, who similarly argued that the new process for requesting an exception to height transitions is unnecessary.
"I don't think anyone thought that what this process is supposed to do is put new burdens on residents," Levinsky told the council.
Most council members agreed, however, that the changes proposed by staff are sufficient to set up the types of protections that residents have called for. They noted that anyone who applies for an exception to the 150-foot rule would have to undergo a discretionary review process that gives the city ample opportunity to make sure that the new development does not intrude on the privacy of nearby residents.
"People in the RM-40 district have a reasonable expectation of the same type of privacy protection as people in RM-20 and the RM-30," council member Eric Filseth said.