Feud heating up over foothills | June 27, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 27, 2007

Feud heating up over foothills

Open-space residents protest city's attempt to restrict development

by Molly Tanenbaum

Palo Alto's attempt to limit house sizes in the foothills is being fought by property owners, who say proposed restrictions would "down-zone" their land.

"It's like being in the middle of the game and they change the rules," 20-year open space property owner Cathy Cartmell said.

Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Karen Holman said proposed zoning changes are actually a way for the city to get back to development restrictions that existed before the advent of special permeable paving surfaces.

"It has been difficult to express to the property owners that we're not really changing the code; we're trying to restore it," Holman said.

Palo Alto restricts the size of homes in the city's open-space zones by limiting the amount of "impervious coverage": the house, driveways, paths, decks and garage all count as square footage that does not allow water to pass through to the ground.

Property owners in the open space may only take up 3.5 percent of their land with impervious surfaces -- which Cartmell called "very restrictive."

However, new permeable paving materials for walkways and driveways have allowed property owners an unintended privilege, Holman said.

Since these permeable materials are exempt from the impervious square footage tally, residents can then construct larger homes with the square footage they save on driveways.

"It's kind of contrary to the overall intent of the open space zone to be transferring that square footage into houses," Assistant Planning Director Curtis Williams said.

Holman said a new zoning code is needed to "at least put a plug in the hole in the dyke" and prevent extremely large, visible houses from being built in the open space.

But residents in the open space argue that these zoning changes are unreasonable and that the city did not consult them first.

"They're applying a broad brush to a lot of properties without studying what the impact is," said Mark Conroe, who owns 3.6 acres of undeveloped land off of Los Trancos Road.

He has been working on plans to build a house there with a footprint of 3,500 square-feet, not counting a driveway, decks and walkways.

"It's not even a mega house. Normal out there is 5,000 square feet," he said.

But Conroe, who lives in San Francisco, said the city's proposed changes to open space regulations would "effectively render our family's land unbuildable."

"We couldn't build a shack out there if they count the driveway as impervious coverage," he said.

Further limiting development in the open space would affect property values, added Cartmell, who lives on Page Mill Road.

"It's an attempt to down-zone the area without actually calling it that," she said.

The open space district includes 4,258 acres, about a third of which is privately owned, according to a staff report. Of 85 private parcels of land in the open space, 33 have yet to be developed.

Since permeable paving materials became more popular, Holman said, "In the last three or so years, we've seen it impact the development in the foothills."

Brian Schmidt, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills, said limiting house sizes and ground coverage -- whether permeable or impervious -- helps the environment.

"If you previously had open space with biological value and you replace it with a driveway, that is a change," Schmidt said.

Any development in the open space, he continued, "tends to have disproportionate impacts on the environment, especially the size of homes that are built up there, which are often gigantic."

After Cartmell alerted her neighbors in the open space to proposed zoning changes, they sent e-mails to the city protesting the proposal.

The negative response from property owners pushed the planning commission to find a "temporary fix until they can address other issues of house size and overall building on the site," Williams said.

The Palo Alto City Council will review changes to open space development regulations on July 16.

Williams agreed to convene a group of planning commissioners, open space property owners and environmental advocates to discuss open space zoning regulations within a 90-day period after the council's July 16 vote.

The commission will then explore alternatives to limiting impervious ground coverage, such as setting a maximum house size or a floor-area ratio.

Page Mill Road resident Daniel Dulitz hopes that the commission will avoid restricting home floor area and focus more on visibility of each home from beyond the property lines.

"If you can't see my house -- and if its impact on runoff, drainage, foliage and wild animals is small -- why do you care how much floor area I have? Even now, we are allowed far less floor area per acre than anywhere else in the city," Dulitz wrote in an e-mail.

Staff Writer Molly Tanenbaum can be e-mailed at mtanenbaum@paweekly.com.


Posted by Acitizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2007 at 12:18 pm

The Planning and Transportation Commissioners have already ended the Rein of Terror by Permeable Materials in the Open Space District. The Wise and All Knowing Commissioners have declared all materials used on any properties in the Open Space District to be Impervious(At the June 13, 2007 meeting). So why do they want more restrictions ie; the talk of Maximum House size, Slope Density Formulas, FAR etc....?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 27, 2007 at 5:40 pm

I remember when Enid Pearson cost PA a few million dollars when she downzoned some hillside property. There are developed hillsides in the Bay Area and anyone upset by the vistas of such areas are bent. We get all dewy-eyed about a collapsing mansion and yet today Juana Briones would be denied a building permit. I say require, if we must, on site mitigation of runoff, but let successful people build their castles and let those offended by works of people wear appliances to obscure upsetting views. Anyone want to demolish Filoli? If not, then let's go with Filoli 2.0.

Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 27, 2007 at 6:33 pm

I would like to sympathise with the property owners. But I wonder how much in the past under other circumstances they may have not supported real property rights. Have they instead supported the bundle-of-sticks theory of property where the government is given the right to take some sticks such as through taxes and zoning restrictions? If they haven't been consistent in supporting rights, then they should live with what they have propagated.

Posted by An Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2007 at 12:13 am

I have no idea what R Wray is saying. As I recall the city annexed the area which was zoned one acre in the county. They assessed the property owners for installing 2 one million gallon and 1 1 1/2 million water tanks, and a large sewer line. Then the Committee for Green Foothills ( a group from Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills) worked to form the Regional Open Space District then these groups got the city to down-zone the properties (many thousands of acres, ) so that it could be bought cheap.

I would call this unethical and many people would too if their property was down zoned to prevent its use. Why hasn't Los Altos and Portola Valley down zoned land in their areas.

Is it the USA policy to prevent people from build houses on their land? Was this done as the "Right" people didn't own it? Is Palo Alto a "Third World" city where only certain people have property rights?

If down zoning the western portion of Palo Alto is ethical how about doing a similiar thing to a large portion of Palo Alto that is actually a "Flood Zone/Area" for the safety of the people living there. One of the biggest disasters that can occurr in Palo Alto is major flooding like in New Orleans. The city needs to take action that will cost the city little like posting signs in the flood areas showing how deep a 100 yr flood would cover the area with water. They could require everyone in the flood zone to have rubber boats and concrete walls around their perimiter and a large supply of sand bags on hand and sump pumps, etc.,etc. It should be made clear that property owners along the creek are held responsible for the flooding if they own part of the creek.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 28, 2007 at 6:19 am

As the unoccupied foothills turn brown while the built up foothills stay green, perhaps it is time to sue the committee for green foothills for false advertising.
I still find pleasure in a well executed work of man, and mansions give us all something to aspire to. Envy is rightly one of the deadly sins.

Posted by tired of bickering, a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 28, 2007 at 9:17 am

An Observer -

While the City has not required boats and sandbags, homeowners in the flood zone area are required to get rid of their basement if they are doing a large enough remodel. New homes can't be built with basements in the Flood Zone. This could also be considered "down-zoning". Single Story zoning has been applied to whole neighborhoods. This could also be considered "down-zoning". Its not just the foothills who are subject to changes.

Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 28, 2007 at 9:59 am

An Observer, my point is that the property owners deserve sympathy only if they support the concept of property rights.

I live in the flood zone. For you to justify your position by justifying restrictions for me makes my point.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 28, 2007 at 11:03 am

Someday, another Supreme Court will decide that regulation of construction on private property except for public health and safety is outside the scope of government authority. Bless that day.

Posted by Brian Schmidt, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2007 at 2:09 pm

Hi folks, I work for Committee for Green Foothills. I think the vast majority of people will agree that helping start MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District was one of our greatest achievements and a crucial region why the South Bay has the open natural spaces it has today, as opposed to looking like Los Angeles.

Everyone's free to have other preferences, of course, but in a democracy, the community as a whole determines zoning and tax rates.

Please enjoy the brown hills that you can walk freely on, and remember that if they'd been turned into lawns as is being suggested, our current water crisis would be worse, and the early 90's water crisis would have been disastrous.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 28, 2007 at 3:07 pm

You like them, buy them. We find water when we need it, even better when primitivists are not allowed to hex all works of man. Most of the Los Angeles hills are beautiful and of far more utility than our dusty dunes. The general public has always shown a willingness to be generous with the property of others. That may well be the original sin plus one. We came to land made livable by the efforts of those who came before us. Our refusal to accomodate the next generation is a shame. Wave bye to our kids as they seek shelter where it is still permitted. Just hide your halo and wings around me, I ain't buying it.

Posted by aw, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 28, 2007 at 3:37 pm

The community as a whole went through an eight year democratic process with many hearings to update Zoning in 2005. There was ample time to comment throughout that process.

Technical errors should be corrected, but this is a proposed way to backdoor a conceptual change. There is no absolute size limit on building in OS districts. OS development guidelines encourage building placements that are not visible from the road and encourage permeable driveways.

People do make plans based on the outcomes of democratic processes. Let's leave the Code alone for now.

Posted by R Wray, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 28, 2007 at 5:05 pm

We are not a democracy. We are a republic based on individual rights. In the 1920's we began to lose property rights. Now the government has so many "takings" that property owners are in many cases considered lucky if they can use their land to have a picnic.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 29, 2007 at 12:15 pm

I have all kinds of marvelous ideas what to do with other people's money. I am restrained because it is, how you say, "theirs".

Posted by Mary Ellen Davis, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 29, 2007 at 12:50 pm

The comments of Brian Schmidt illustrate how Environmentalist fervor easily can turn into fanaticism that overrides our basic freedoms.

Brian says, "Everyone's free to have other preferences, of course, but in a democracy, the community as a whole determines zoning and tax rates."

This sounds good: who can be against democracy?

But as you think about this, you'll likely come to the conclusion that you don't want to live in a place where your property can be taken away by majority vote. If we all vote to confiscate Brian's house because we'd prefer to see an empty lot where it stands, I doubt if Brian will cheerfully acquiesce to this straightforward outcome of the democratic process.

The founders saw the dangers of this, which is why they wrote certain rights into the Constitution that can't be taken away by democratic vote. Maybe Brian should read the 5th amendment: property rights are one of these important rights.

Posted by A Citizen, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 29, 2007 at 3:43 pm

Brian Schmidt's quote: "Please enjoy the brown hills that you can walk freely on, and remember that if they'd been turned into lawns as is being suggested, our current water crisis would be worse, and the early 90's water crisis would have been disastrous."

You can only walk freely on public land. These "down size rules" are affecting private property owners. If you want to completely ignore property rights, you should get your eco-buddies together, raise enough money to buy at fair market value the land and the value of a 5000 sq ft house plus toss in a bit extra to get the property owner to sell without the feeling of duress, then give the land to the city / county / open space groups. Just because a vocal group wants open space, does not mean people's rights should be trampled. Try moving out of Palo Alto / Bay Area and move to a place where "master planned" communities that include open space are being built and leave rightful property owners alone.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 30, 2007 at 6:20 am

Tell us about how the Open Space District put those pushy Nuns in their place, Brian.

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