Building in the foothills is, by nature, a sensitive subject in Palo Alto but the design team behind a proposal at 575 Los Trancos Road had some reasons to feel optimistic going into the City Council review on Monday.
They submitted their application for a single-family home and an accessory dwelling unit about two years ago and, after many revisions and iterations, scored a victory in August when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission voted to recommend approving the project. The commission's then-Chair Ed Lauing suggested at that time that the project is "as good as can be in an OS (open space) zone," though he and others also agreed that the applicant explore ways to limit lighting in environmentally sensitive areas.
But the outlook soured late Monday night, when the project ran into resistance from council members and local environmentalists. Concerned about the home's impact on Los Trancos Creek, which runs about 20 feet away from the proposed site of the new home, the council sent the project back to the drawing board. In doing so, council members also indicated that they want to adopt new zoning rules that would restrict development within 150 feet of riparian corridors.
The owner of the Los Trancos property near the Portola Valley border is Innovative Homes LLC, an entity whose registered agent is John Suppes, president of the local building company Clarum Homes, which specializes in environmentally friendly designs. The project architect, Leonard Ng of LNAI Architecture, assured the council Monday that the design team had tried to make the home look "nestled into the topography," eschewing gabled roofs in favor of predominantly low-roof forms.
Much of the 5.28-acre site in the open space zoning district includes trees. The 7,245-square-foot home and 894-square-foot accessory dwelling unit are proposed for a clearing that would accommodate the new structures while also allowing nearly all of the 82 trees at the site around the proposed house location to be preserved. Of the 38 protected trees at the site, 37 would be saved under the proposed plan, and the only one that would be removed is a coast live oak that is dead, according to planning staff. Four other unprotected trees are identified for removal because they are "dead or significantly failing," while another is slated for removal because it is "impeding the planned location for the driveway," the staff report states.
"Our new home aims to preserve the natural and beautiful context that it's carefully set within and to minimize environmental impact and disturbances to a lot of the great mature trees at the site," Ng told the council.
Council members and some residents objected to the plan because of its proximity to the creek. The city's current zoning law requires a 20-foot setback for developments near creeks, a threshold that the new home is barely meeting. To complicate matters further, the city's Comprehensive Plan includes a program that calls for exploring a prohibition on siting of buildings, impervious surfaces and outdoor activity areas within 150 feet of the top of a creek bank. To date, however, the city has not changed its zoning code to incorporate this policy.
Council member Pat Burt took issue with the proposed home's proximity to the creek and suggested sending the project back to the Planning and Transportation Commission for exploration of a different alternative with a setback of 50 feet.
"This project is designed as close as possible to the creek," Burt said "And we all know that that kind of setting is really attractive for a homeowner — to be able to have that adjacency to a creekside and that beautiful riparian corridor. But our standards and the standards of multiple different agencies respect that there have to be greater protections to this critical part of our habitat and that the pleasure of the property owner needs to be balanced against those overriding considerations.
"That's the basis for us needing to have a project that does a better job of balancing these issues."
Mayor Lydia Kou joined Burt and added a list of eco-friendly features that the project will be required to incorporate, including bird-safe glazing treatment of all glass surfaces, minimal nighttime lighting along the riparian corridor and elimination of fencing that could impede wildlife movement along the creek. The motion passed 4-2, with council members Julie Lythcott-Haims and Greg Tanaka dissenting (Lauing recused himself because of his prior participation as a planning commissioner).
"I think the question or the issue tonight is how we can be responsible and kind both to residents and our environment," council member Vicki Veenker said. "Our residents do deserve a predictable permitting process and our open space, especially our creekside open space."
Numerous residents and representatives from various environmental groups urged the council not to approve the project, which they suggested would threaten the environmentally sensitive area. Alice Kaufman, policy director at Green Foothills, said human presence close to creek corridors has a "disruptive effect on wildlife." Dave Poeschel, a member of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, called the proposed 20-foot setback from the stream "grossly inadequate."
The area, he noted, is home to species like the dusky-footed woodrat, a nocturnal rodent that builds its nest with large piles of sticks and salamanders that live under logs.
"This proposal suggests that we forever degrade our commons, not to solve the regional housing shortage but for an enormous mansion and an ADU (accessory dwelling unit) that has an outdoor shower and has a large pool that makes it look like it may serve as a clubhouse," Poeschel said.
The two dissenting council members suggested that the council's new demands are unfair, given that they are basing their decision on rules that they want to see rather than rules that actually are in place. Ng also expressed frustration about the city changing its rules in the middle of the process.
"I know there are larger issues going on about our project regarding the Comprehensive Plan and policies, but as you can imagine, there's a little bit of frustration from the design team because it feels like we're chasing a little bit of a moving target," Ng told the council.
In response, Lythcott-Haims argued that the city has "an obligation not to offer people moving targets."
"I know no one intended to offer a moving target but that seems to be effectively what this applicant has had to contend with, and I think we have to be concerned about that," she said.
Tanaka noted that requiring a 50-foot setback to the creek would push the house either toward trees or up a slope, making it harder to build. The new requirement, he said, is "unfair" and will likely require the applicant to propose a taller building.
"We literally moved the cheese here by 30 feet," Tanaka said.