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Long Time Residents vs. Developer / Prop Rights

Original post made by Metzler McVey, Community Center, on Feb 14, 2007

Where should the line be drawn? Should developers who will not live in the neighborhoods where they build have more stringent rules?

A majority of the neighbors on my street are very concerned about a large, modern house, that pushes the envelope in every direction. We signed comments that were delivered and emailed to the City of Palo Alto Planning folks. CPA planners have been quite responsive.

Our street has mostly 50' wide lots with 6' lot lines. The proposed new addition has 4 bedrooms and 3 full baths upstairs. Desite some concessions by the devloper, the second floor overhangs the first floor creating a massive street facade. The second floor spans across the full width of the house barely fitting in the day light plane envelope. The new house dwarfs the smaller homes on each side.

I am not the side neighbor. For the long time neigbors each side, they will lose sun and privacy. The neighbors across the street will look at this severe house for decades.

The developer asserts that he could, (but will not), build a large, cheap, purple modern house. That is within his rights.

Just where should the line be drawn. Property rights or consideration for the neighborhood. Should developers have more stringent rules than owners occupied?

Comments (35)

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 14, 2007 at 3:28 pm

The zoning envelope is there with the full knowledge that the edge of the envelope will be used, many times. You seem to be requesting disciminatory treatment of or by property owners.

Posted by Agree with John
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2007 at 5:07 pm

I have a HUGE house going up behind me...all within the zoning rules.

bye-bye privacy. Bye-bye "open feeling". It is on my north side, so sun isn't an issue, luckily. But if it were, it would be horrible.

But, no matter how bad I feel about losing so much of my "feeling", I have to admit that our zoning rules are in place, we have to follow them, and if I don't like them, well, too bad for me, I can't stop my neighbor from doing something that is legal.

I just have to decide if it is possible to go to city hall and work on changing them before the next one goes up, but I suspect few would support any decrease because most folks now want huge homes.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2007 at 7:04 pm

I live amidst larger houses that have allowed beautiful people to stay who might have gone elsewhere. Some are boxy, some are elegant. None of them traumatize me.

Posted by A long time resident concerned about losing property rights
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 15, 2007 at 12:21 am

Our country was created on the basis of owning propert and having a reasonable right to use it and not having neighbors saying "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine too." Plant trees! Our city annexed thousands of acres, put in utilities and billed the property owners for them then said: We can't allow housing there and created an Open Space Zoning which for many practical reasons at the time prevented the large property owners from developing/using their property. What a crazy and I think unethical thing to do. The city probably 50,000 or more commuters coming to this city every day to work. They probably consume 250,000 gallons of gas each day commuting here. The city needs 50,000 new housing units to meet the demands of the workforce here. Be glad a 800 High St building dosen't go up next door. It may in the future to meet the housing needs. If you don't like things in Palo Alto go to Portola Valley as ex councilman Kirk Comstock did to get away from he saw coming to Palo Alto neighborhoods/city. He got a tall tree award for preventing low density housing from being built in Palo Alto. He now lives close to the Open Space lands he helped create in Palo Alto. Note also that there is no down-zoning to Open Space land in Portola Valley where the commitee for green foothills people live. Their efforts don't apply to where they live or to LosAltos Hills.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2007 at 8:36 am

We can't have more high density housing here until such time as we have the infrastructure. Our schools are overcrowded and continue to grow, our shopping is ludicrous, and our utilities need to be updated in the residential areas we have. Yes, it would be nice to house our workers here and stop the commute, but many of them don't want to live in Palo Alto. This thread was about neighbors building big houses. That is very different to building high density low cost housing.

Posted by KC Marcinik
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 15, 2007 at 11:04 am

The infrastructure will not be built under the current conditions in Palo Alto.  Developers want to build houses because the residential market is the most profitable.  Palo Alto was originally zoned to provide each residential neighborhood with adjacent open space (parks), schools and commercial (retail) development. These areas were laid out by an organized city planning department before any of the development took place, and then filled in.  

Sustainable planning practices  started to deteriorate in the 70’s, when school enrollment went down and several schools were torn down and the land sold to developers who built more houses.  Some of the vacant schools were left standing and rented so that there is an option of reclaiming them as needed (and they are needed now ), but the others are gone and can never be re-built - the land has been subdivided and is privately owned.  A housing development was planned for the former Cubberley High School  site, but fought down by Greenmeadow neighbors.   Where would we be now without Palo Alto's No. 1 Community Resource  - playing fields, classrooms, artist and dance studios?

Today there are several commercial sites that are empty and up for re-development.  Instead of staying with the original zoning for these sites, the city is allowing developers to propose anything they want, and then trying to hash out some sort of consensus with the public.  If reached, the property is then re-zoned to match the developer’s proposal.  Contentious neighbors are blamed when this process drags on, but the process is exactly backward, as well as being too fragmented.

Re-zoning, if required for the future needs of the city, should be comprehensive, looking at the city as a functioning organism, and should be voted on by the whole community.   Right now, the defacto method of planning on the fly , turning every piece of available land into a “PC” (planned community) development zone, treats the new developments as islands totally unconnected to each other, the surrounding city, or the history of its development.

I apologize if this it too far off-topic; it was on my mind already when I started reading this thread.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2007 at 3:25 pm

A major chore of any planning department is correcting the goofs of earlier planning. Within very wide limits planning and ownership should go under the same hat.

Posted by Bob Gardiner
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2007 at 6:19 pm

"Within very wide limits planning and ownership should go under the same hat. "

what does that mean?

Posted by w
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2007 at 6:56 pm

That means that the guy who owns the property should be permitted, with due consideration for public health and safety, to do pretty much what he wants to do. People who feel they need more regulation should be allowed to join private associations where averyone involved can agree to be bound by CC&Rs, but the city has no right to regulate beyond public health and safety.

Posted by Bob Gardiner
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2007 at 9:55 pm

Had not heard an anarchist in Palo Alto in a long time.

Definitely not how the majority of Palo Alto was planned or developed, and not how the majority of PA folks want to live.

Posted by Dave Voelker
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 16, 2007 at 1:22 pm

This is emblematic of how distorted some people's thinking is on this subject -- not being allowed to dictate what your neighbors can do with their property is labeled anarchy. There's too much power lust in this town. Instead of kvetching that your neighbor's new house is bigger than yours, you should be thanking them for raising your property value.

Posted by Support the Law
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 16, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Palo Alto does have a law that tells property owners what to do - it has been on the books for a long time. This law limits the business use of your private property. Apparently many people in Palo Alto support the idea that people can't have a home business if it is noisy, adds too many parked cars, too much traffic and/or creates an eyesore.

Posted by Bob Gardiner
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 16, 2007 at 5:38 pm

So, the only basis of zoning is safety and public health. All other considerations such as neighborhood proximity to schools, shopping centers, and parks is 'distorted'?

BTW, w/o any zoning taking these into consideration our combined property values would decline.


Posted by Carolyn
a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2007 at 5:43 pm

A beautiful, private backyard. Heaven. Then a two-story goes up next door. Property values? Sweet. Privacy? Priceless.

Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 17, 2007 at 7:08 am

The 2 story houses to my North and West have never been nests of ogglers, just as I have not taken advantage of their elevated thus more visible windows to observe them.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 17, 2007 at 12:00 pm

I agree with most of the criticism of the results of our newer houses, but I think the problem is exacerbated by things having nothing to do with jobs, or even with developers' profits. Palo Alto's zoning regulations for single-family residences are over-complicated.

Ideology was at work here, not common sense or judgment. There's so much stuff stuck on the outside of the house - porches, porticos, bay windows, because of a desire to favor certain styles of architecture. The co-chair was an architect in practice here, and the other co-chair admires his taste.

The zoning is also afflicted with ideas currently in vogue among planners. If it had been put forward as design review, it would have been voted down. It stole in the back door.

Use these "desirable" features in your plans, and we'll let you have a bigger house. Yes, it works badly, and not just because the houses are bigger. It rewards cookie-cutter design, not planning each house for the individual client. I doubt that it really nets higher prices for the builders, but they have a religious faith in these issues. There's no way to test that faith.

There's excess paving when the garage goes to the rear, which causes more run-off, the "pervious" paving doesn't stay that way, the residents in general have to buy more equipment for the city's utilities to accommodate these badly designed structures with pump-out basement living space.

The talk in the advisory committee was all about adding visual "interest", getting garages in the rear of the lot, so that the street view looks more like wealthier communities (Atherton, Hillsborough.) The reward for designing to please the taste then in vogue is larger houses.

A clean, simple code would do a better job of preserving property values. With what they've done, each new house is built without any idea of where to put the windows for light or privacy, etc.

It's also hard to enforce, but then we don't pay for a code enforcement officer for zoning.

Most of us who've been here awhile have acquired "second" homes where we really live. The new Palo Alto isn't much fun. And of course it will never catch up with the theoretical need for housing, because Stanford is a job engine, and it is exempt from providing housing.

That does make it less likely we'll put much into Palo Alto. I, for one, will no longer vote to pass most bond issues. I think that's part of the change. We haven't become more conservative, just less interested in a crowded not-city, not-suburb.

I'm thinking of renting our home in Palo Alto. (Selling it would be a huge tax bite.)

If residential property were suddenly exempt from capital gains tax, I imagine there would be a large drop in real estate values, as many Palo Altans tried to dump their houses.

Posted by 14k/yr
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Feb 17, 2007 at 1:13 pm

I have not forgiven and will never forgive my elderly neighbors for imposing a zoning regulation that blocks second story additions or homes in my neighborhood.

I find Carol’s statement “Most of us who've been here awhile have acquired "second" homes where we really live” to be quite amazing.

Carol, please note that are few things in this universe that elicit less sympathy from my generation than listening to long-time residents complain about being hit with capital gains taxes on the sale of their homes. I guess Prop 13 wasn’t good enough for some people. Also, please don’t rent out your house to anyone with school age children. PAUSD’s status as a basic aid district causes rental properties to be a significant drain on school resources.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 17, 2007 at 9:17 pm

to 14k/yr:

I don't object to capital gains taxes. I was pointing out that Palo Alto house prices are artificially inflated by the fact that many of us lucky enough (and I do consider it luck) to be able to get away from the monster houses, the traffic and the chain stores don't have to dump our houses on the market.

Where I choose to live, 14k/yr is a lot more common than it is in Palo Alto, and starter castles are uncommon. When I first lived in Palo Alto, it was much more of an economic mix than it is today. That's why I wanted to live there.

Palo Alto's school district has been pro-development. There seems to have been a lot of wishful thinking - somehow we'll get the fees, but not the kids?

My point was that the zoning ordinance was written by and for architects. It's not written for do-it-yourself, nor is it written to encourage add-ons. It's written to encourage teardowns. I think that's a shame, and it's made Palo Alto a much less attractive, a much less appealing place to live.

Posted by joyce
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2007 at 5:40 am

Thank goodness for the elderly neighbors, and lucky neighborhood. This used to be a town of attractive, tasteful reasonably sized houses, now it's tasteless, unethical conspicuous consumption, build out to the lot line who cares if it destroys the neighbors' privacy or sunlight. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2007 at 6:09 pm

Boxy Eichlers and Ginger Bread mail order kits? Puleezz!
Outside of Julia and Birge I wouldn't miss any of them.

Posted by Bob Gardiner
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2007 at 9:04 pm

Joyce, I agree.

Greenmeadow, full of 'boxy' Eichlers, is probably the best family neighborhood in Palo Alto. Great place for kids.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 19, 2007 at 10:41 pm

Seriously, with attitudes and posturing put aside, if there were more choice, Palo Alto would again become interesting. Variety is desirable.

Houses can't be required to be beautiful. Certainly not the way it's going; John Northway's taste. Not that he's an unpleasant fellow, but only he and his clients chose to live in Northwayland.

Greenmeadow is a great neighborhood, but so is Professorville. College Park and Barron Park retain much of their appeal, but they are so close to dangerous toxic release and traffic. Zoning supposed to help, not hurt.

Zoning is intended to protect property values as they are created. We have treated peoples' homes the way the Bushies treat babies - of concern only until birth.

In some ways, the purchaser of these new top-heavy houses has been taken for a ride.H The lose the California way of life and they get a lot of wasted ground floor.

If you're living next door, their loss is not your consolation, Certainly the neighbors are losing property value - unless those neighbors live on a big lot, in a house that's in need of very major, very difficult repair.

The new house is rather like the turkey puffing himself up so he won't be taken for a smaller bird, Poor turkey has its wings dragging on the ground; poor house can't get to its own garden.

Once the new owners move in, they will find their houses are not as spacious as they should have been for the expense. That's because their architects were using a zoning ordinance intended to discourage use of first floor space, and increase the amount of space devoted to getting the cars off the street and into the rear of the lot. The combination generally deprives the house of the easy relationship to the garden that used to be a hallmark of California living, for rich and poor alike.

I'd like to see an honest a zoning code that allowed more total square footage, but counted everything. A code that made it as easy to put on an addition as to tear down and start over. More for everybody, except a slightly smaller fee for the architect.

Posted by KC Marcinik
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 20, 2007 at 9:33 am

The residential building code has been changed recently. In Palo Alto, you are now allowed to build as much square footage on the ground floor as was formerly allowed for two stories. This was intended to make single story homes viable again. An extra design review process with neighborhood notification was added to any new/tear-down home project, or existing single story house adding a second story - specifically to make those projects more difficult than adding a single story addition.

I absolutely disagree that it is the local building code that is responsible for tear-downs in Palo Alto. More than any of the surrounding communities I’ve submitted plans to (I’m an architect), Palo Alto encourages remodeling and additions, by allowing exceptions based on the existing house.

But, a LOT of Palo Alto houses are built in flood plain zones, in which case the owner is not allowed to improve the house by more than 50% of its assessed value without raising or re-building the existing house to the required height above flood level. This is the biggest factor favoring tear-downs over additions, and it’s mandated by FEMA.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 20, 2007 at 11:35 am

Your practice is unusual. John Northway was featured in a long piece in the Weekly on teardowns. He called them "Econ 101" and attributed them to land costs. Appointed by the City Council as co-chair to the Single Family Review advisory commission, John built in "exempt" footage, so that FAR that would otherwise be used up by large porches does not count. Palo Alto now has many houses with much more intrusive second floors because of John's work.

My husband and I photographed these houses (including some in the flood-plain zone) with cars and junk under huge second floors. We took them to the Planning and Transportation Commission. John appeared in opposition, protesting that doing away with these exemptions would interfere with his freedom to add design features, because people would not accept them if they were not exempt from FAR.

Requiring a house to be raised above flood level if extensively rebuilt hardly seems like requiring teardowns. I believe that I specified houses with minor structural problems when I said that the zoning code entices speculators to tear down sound and attractive homes in order to gain footage exempt from FAR.

Houses in the flood plain also cannot have full basements. Of course, that is reflected in the price paid for the land. If the flood level rises, some of these massive new basements are going to become serious problems. There is supposed to be access to the outside, for fire. It's fairly minimal, and I feel sorry for the rescue crews.

Posted by Eichler owner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 20, 2007 at 12:21 pm

I would like to add that the existing code does favor teardowns. We own an eichler on a large corner lot in a culdesac and wanted to increase our living space substantially. We looked into adding a second storey, not allowed due to the slab not being strong enough, etc. etc. We looked into adding on at the one side of our home which had plenty of unused yard, but unless we built above 6 ft. this would not have been allowed and that would have spoilt the flow of our existing eichler home if we had had to make it split level. The obvious way around this would have been to teardown and start again. In actual fact we made the addition smaller and increased the amount of covered patio area to enable to pass code. This was done so that we would not have to move out of our home while the addition was being done, not that we loved eichlers so much that we did not want to destroy the original home. It would definitely have been much easier for us to teardown and start again. The present rules definitely favor tear downs and that is why there are so many of them in the flood plain.

Posted by KC Marcinik
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 20, 2007 at 1:03 pm

Eichler Owner, that is exactly what I was talking about. It is not the building code that prevented you from building a larger addition, it was the federal FEMA floodzone guidelines, if the reason you couldn’t build more on to the existing house is because the house would have had to be 6’ higher, as you said.

Carol, houses built with a concrete slab foundation, as many are in our floodzones, cannot be raised above flood level without being torn down. “Substantial Improvements” (anything more than small additions or light remodeling) cannot be done without raising the house above flood level. Therefore, even if the house is perfectly sound structurally, if an owner wants to build to the extent allowed by the building code, the existing house has to go.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 20, 2007 at 1:16 pm

Bet you could build a house at grade where a flood below ceiling level would do little more than cosmetic damage except to furnishings.

Posted by KCM
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 20, 2007 at 1:29 pm


Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 20, 2007 at 2:14 pm

KC, I do think teardowns are a serious environmental problem, and even at the new rates, taxpayers still bear much of the expense of dumping all these materials.

I was, however, specifically addressing using the zoning ordinance to encourage architects and speculators to tear down all of a perfectly sound house so that they can build with large, virtually unused and unusable porches. That's not a legitimate use of zoning, which is supposed to protect property values.

Are you saying that it's not a hardship for the neighbors when second floors are made larger than otherwise permissible by pretending that the porch under it is a public benefit so it doesn't count as FAR?

I also disapprove of Palo Alto's provisions which similarly encourage builders to move garages to the back yard. I dislikex hearing planners sneer at "snout houses." No, I don't own a "snout house", but I appreciate the saving they represent, and I'm sorry to see them discrimated against. They are environmentally sounder (less paving, less runoff, more trees and shrubbery, people who own them can actually park off the street, even if they aren't skillful enough to back out 100-200 feet.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 20, 2007 at 2:54 pm

I think that I wasn't clear about theory of zoning. The legal justification for zoning is that it protects existing property values, and enables owners to plan for the future.

Palo Alto's misuse of zoning creates new property values, many times at the expense of existing ones.

All residents bear the cost of enforcing zoning. That's not the theory; the Building Department is supposed to pay for itself through fees. It doesn't actually work that way. It probably would, if permit fees were based on real building costs. Last time I checked (three years ago) the building department was calculating permits on the basis of building costs of $107 sq.ft.

Posted by KCM
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 20, 2007 at 3:21 pm

I agree that teardowns are wasteful and contribute to environmental degradation. I disagree that the zoning ordinance is the engine that drives this process.

It’s too bad that people are abusing the FAR exemption for porches. The city has tried to address neighbors’ potential hardships by adding an extra review for second story additions or two story houses - the neighbors are notified and can call a hearing to point out issues they have with the project before it’s built. Even with an FAR exemption, the second floor still has to fit within the “daylight plan” , which defines the maximum bulk of the second floor.

Garages are supposed to be contextual from my understanding of the ordinance- if the other houses on the street have a garage in the back, so should the new house. If the other houses have a garage in front, so should the new house. Like the porch exemption, the intentions were good, based on community discussions, and not intended to increase the number of houses torn down.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 20, 2007 at 4:41 pm

Slightly lower fees for architects? For the hours they spend working around the approval process they might do better flipping burgers. Architects have to like what they do.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 21, 2007 at 8:47 am

It's the owners who spend wasted time on the review process. And if the architect does become involved, that's on an hourly charge.

The review process is a boondoggle. It should be abolished. It employs a lot of staff, none of whom have ever been over-ruled on appeal. Ask Richard Alexander. His wife was a planner, and she appealed, all the way to the City Council. No dice, third floors are legal, there is no right to privacy, draw your curtains.

She did her research. No initial approval was ever over-ruled by senior staff. Since she lost at Council, also, no approval is ever over-ruled. Period. There are no property rights. New development rights, but no property rights.

Posted by Silver Bullet
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2007 at 9:58 am

I'd like to contribute a couple of concepts: 1. Placing more restrictions on what a person can do with their property decreases property values. That's a proven fact of law and economics. 2. I believe that most people these days don't like Eichler type houses. For better or worse, they don't care about the original ideals that went into creating those. They view them as extremely dated-looking and are aware of the serious maintenence and energy-efficiency problems. They could be wrong, but if you talk to people both in and out of palo alto, that's what you are going to hear. 3. Over the long term, its impossible to regulate a "taste-based" definition of the "character of a community." Tastes change over time, and if you check, 100 people will probably like 100 different house designs. Its not fair to tell someone who likes a Tuscan-style house that they are "wrong" because we aren't in Tuscany. How would you like it if someone told you that its not the year 2450, and we don't all wear sliver jumpsuits and drive airplane cars? That's what many people think of when they see Eichler houses - a dated view of the future. Personally, I love it when people move into Eichler houses and fix them up to the extent that they can. I think it is valuable to our community. Why don't we band together, and buy some Eichlers, then resell them with restrictions that they can't be torn down? 4. I don't think its fair to dehumanize people who live in larger houses. I'd rather live in a community of "monster taco bell homes" than to live in a community of snobs who judge me solely on the house I live in.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 21, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Anyone fond of the architectural review process would be enchanted to have the government select a mate for them. Right?

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