News

Palo Alto deals setback to planned foothills home

Applicant told to come up with new design that would keep proposed residence farther from the creek

The Palo Alto City Council on Jan. 23, 2023, sent the application for a home at 575 Los Trancos Road back to the drawing board. Rendering courtesy LNAI Architecture.

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.

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"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."

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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.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Palo Alto deals setback to planned foothills home

Applicant told to come up with new design that would keep proposed residence farther from the creek

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Jan 24, 2023, 9:45 am

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.

Comments

felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2023 at 11:14 am
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2023 at 11:14 am

Thank goodness sense prevailed last night for 4 of 6 Council members. Their decision didn't just effect this wealthy applicant's 5-acre parcel, or Palo Alto, but, as was stated in great informed detail by Sierra Club, Green Foothills, MROSD and Audubon, an entire riparian ecosystem and it's habitat would be effected at the project site and downstream if allowed to build so close to Los Trancos Creek.

When one chooses to live in Open Space zoning, there is a responsibility to be a steward of the land, creeks, and all that lives there. It is not just a building site for villas and pools.

Yes, it is time for the City to consolidate its standards into a single one. But that was no reason for Council to ignore it has them. The applicant may still build a giant house on their 5-acre parcel, but further away from the creek with wildlife appropriate lighting, and windows, sans fence.

It was no surprise that Council member, "...moved the cheese here by 30-feet", Tanaka had no expressed concern for the environment given his history of supporting development. It was more interesting that Haims-Lythcott voted with Tanaka, expressing great sympathy for the applicant, while giving a mere nod for any environmental concerns - creek, what creek? I assume we will see many more such votes from this pro-development duo.






[email protected]
Registered user
Portola Valley
on Jan 24, 2023 at 1:10 pm
[email protected], Portola Valley
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2023 at 1:10 pm

The "Palo Alto" process strikes again. Is it any wonder that many contractors categorically refuse to do any business - even remodeling - in Palo Alto? Capricious reinvention of the rules at the whim of individuals whose only real goal is to see if they can wear down a property owner into abandoning private projects needs to be terminated. A city council should be given 1 opportunity to say yea or nay at the onset of a proposal to use privately owned property for private purposes in a manner that conforms to the rules in place at the time of the proposal. After that the final approval is up to the planning staff to insure that the proposed design conforms to those rules.
The parcel in question has been under consideration for use as a home site for well over 30 years and the various owners have been jerked around by objections of others who live both nearby or miles away and whose only vested interest is to control the lives of others. I would submit that 99+ percent of the people who live in Palo Alto have no idea where this site is and have no real interest in the outcome of this project.


rita vrhel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 24, 2023 at 6:06 pm
rita vrhel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2023 at 6:06 pm

I do not agree with Stan's posting or with the article not mentioning the number of emails sent to the City Council about not approving this proposed home.

One would think that with our recent flooding 2nd to a larger than expected "atmospheric river" that it is reasonable to change the rules regarding building next to a Creek. More of these heavy rainfall events are forecast for the future.

The Creek flows thru the owners property but they do not "own" the Creek.

What is built next to the Creek influences all the other landowners and homes downstream. I would think if this permit is allowed homeowners down stream could sue Palo alto for not protecting the Creek and their property.

So we have a 5.28 ac. lot, a 7,245 sq. ft. house and a 894 sq. ft. ADU. All of which MUST be built within 20 ft. of the Creek. Seems like some sq. footage could be removed and not really be missed.

I hope Palo Alto continues to value OUR environment and has the courage to make zoning law changes to protect our wildlife and creeks. Sometimes it is necessary to change "midstream" when new evidence is presented or when global warming has been shown to be accelerating faster than we anticipated.

As for builders not wanting to work in Palo Alto, please drive around almost any street in Crescent Park or other parts of Palo Alto and listen to the sound of constant building and reconstruction....... guess there are builders who don't mind the PA process.

Thank you.


Rose
Registered user
Mayfield
on Jan 24, 2023 at 7:27 pm
Rose, Mayfield
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2023 at 7:27 pm

Thank you City Council for protecting the natural environment from a home and ADU (clubhouse?) that was planned way too close to Los Trancos Creek. I’m also glad to hear that reducing night lighting and protecting birds and all wildlife are influencing the City’s thinking. Bravo.


Rebecca Eisenberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2023 at 9:51 pm
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 24, 2023 at 9:51 pm

As your District 7 Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Director, I am thrilled to hear that this proposed development was rejected on the ground that it is too close to a waterway.

As others stated, building close to a creek or other waterway - like this proposed mansion - is harmful not just to the homeowner, but to the entire community. As the drought/flood cycle continues (and is expected to increase), science has confirmed that one of the most effective ways to protect against flooding is to avoid development too close to waterways in the first place. This is a fact here like everywhere in the West. And, as much as this has its disadvantages, Palo Alto needs to let go of some of its height limitations, because when developers are not allowed to build up, they tend to build out, which is the most harmful way to build (converting office to housing, & forcing ghost houses to be used would help also).

I am thrilled to hear that the city is (finally) considering a ban on development within 150 feet of riparian lands. If the City is truly interested in protecting the community from floods, it will follow through on that restriction. 50 feet is not enough.

As to Council Member Lythcott-Haims and others who criticize a "moving target," I urge you to consider the bigger picture. Climate change has accelerated more quickly than many people (and most governments) expected, and we face a certainty - not a possibility - of multiple feet of sea level rise within the next few decades. Additionally, every day at least 200 species go extinct. We are in an existential crisis.

Although changing our policies in order to save our literal *world* may be inconvenient, it is essential if we want to continue life - any life - on Earth. This is not an overstatement.

As elected officials we owe our constituents and communities policies that protect them/us not just today, but into the future. This is an area where local govt can - and must - make a positive difference.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 25, 2023 at 9:35 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 25, 2023 at 9:35 am

"As to Council Member Lythcott-Haims and others who criticize a "moving target," I urge you to consider the bigger picture. Climate change has accelerated more quickly than many people (and most governments) expected, .."

Not only is the above true, but also the unthinking reflexive insistence on "build, baby, build" is dangerous and counter-productive in a city that allegedly prides itself on being so sustainable it insists we buy new cars, new appliances and new furnaces in the middle of a recession.

Where are our forward-looking "leaders" in our "Planning" department who blindly let the approval process get this far? Don't they talk to our "Sustainability" people? Did they miss the recent floods?


MyFeelz
Registered user
another community
on Jan 25, 2023 at 10:04 pm
MyFeelz, another community
Registered user
on Jan 25, 2023 at 10:04 pm

I'm thinking about recent news reported elsewhere, stating that the declining population in China is supposed to cause some kind of downward trend that could topple theirs and other nations. And the huge ice shelf that cut itself in half the other day due to climate change. Also, the more disturbing news that the doomsday clock is now set at 90 seconds to midnight. With all of this, WHY would anyone want to build a monstrosity next to a creek where it is guaranteed to wash down the hill, taking wildlife and human lives as the debris flows down into a populated area? What the H E double toothpicks has humanity become? A race to the end? He who dies with the most toys wins? Them thats got ADU's gonna solve the housing crisis? What the ...... (SMH)


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Jan 26, 2023 at 12:45 am
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Jan 26, 2023 at 12:45 am

@ R Eisenberg
Re: "...we face a certainty - not a possibility - of multiple feet of sea level rise within the next few decades"

I had not heard about this -- can you provide references? My understanding was that any worrisome sea level rise would take hundreds to a few thousand years to appear.


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