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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Guest Opinion: We haven't heard the last of the 'big-house' issue Guest Opinion: We haven't heard the last of the 'big-house' issue (May 14, 2003)

by Dick Placone

Jaime and Elizabeth Wong may have missed the opportunity to appeal the recent council 5-4 vote opposing their plans to expand their house at 1849 Webster St., but I don't think we have heard the last of this project.

As a 41-year resident of Palo Alto, I have a vested interest in what happens in our city. I recently visited 1849 Webster and spent an hour going over the property, viewing it from different angles, studying the plans and talking to Elizabeth Wong. I have reviewed the tape of the Mar. 17 council meeting at which the appeal by neighbors was upheld by a 5-4 vote.

I also have studied other recently built or under-construction two-story homes and evaluated their neighborhood impacts. I have paid particular attention to the individual-review (IR) guidelines, the staff and consultant's report on the project, and comments in the media by members of the committee that developed the guidelines.

To this I bring my own professional and personal experience with large and small construction projects, landscape planning and redevelopment of my own property. Perhaps my independent conclusions can shed some light amid the heat:

1) The site: This property has been improperly compared to a "flag lot" due to its deep front setback from the street, in effect "placing a 6,000-square-foot house on a 10,000-square-foot lot." This lot is 20,000 square feet and the house would occupy the near center of the lot side to side, maintaining the deep setback. Setbacks on all sides substantially exceed city requirements. The only reasonable way to evaluate this property is by taking the parcel as a whole, as the law requires.

2) Project mass: Concerns about size of the project in a neighborhood dominated by large, two-story homes -- including those of most of the neighbors -- strikes me as a classical case of pots calling the kettle black. I am particularly amazed that council majority rejected this project when I examine what the planning department and the City Council have allowed to develop elsewhere in the city.

The denial is unfair given that the plans comply with all zoning regulations and the IR guidelines when interpreted by any reasonable person. Laws and guidelines in effect when a property owner applies for a permit must apply equally. Nothing the Wongs propose is against any applicable guideline or regulation governing building on private residential property.

3) Overshadowing: The consultant's measurements show that the second story with the setbacks will not result in a reduction of sunlight in the neighboring yards. The hours listed in the study are when most people are up and about and when the sun is at its peak. Looking at the north property -- the owner of which wrote a recent Guest Opinion opposing this project -- the high existing hedges and trees cast a shadow on this property nearly all day.

The property to the east, separated by large setbacks on either side of the property line, is shielded by towering redwoods, and the placement of the carport is further away from these redwoods. The two properties on the south may experience some loss of sunlight in the late afternoon, after 3 p.m. The property to the rear, a large two-story house, is far away, with a large rear yard. The towering redwoods and the trees on the north side of the property are likely to cast shadows that either exceed or coincide with the Wong second story.

The front-oriented property on the south side comes the closest to having a legitimate complaint. But the Wongs appear to have done everything reasonable to mitigate the concerns. This property's patio is partially covered by a trellis that already shades the area.

4) Streetscape: The property looks like a small park. A beautiful, open, wrought-iron fence allowed the Wongs to develop a street-side garden for passersby to enjoy. Within the setback of about 15 feet from the inside edge of the sidewalk they have planted flowering trees and rhododendrons, which when mature will be gorgeous.

5) The changing neighborhood: We all have to adjust to change. As a community, we have many large, sometimes stately homes. Many of us started out with small homes, and as our families and incomes grew expanded our homes for added space and more up-to-date accommodations. I am one of these people. I cannot in conscience hope for any less for my fellow Palo Alto residents, including the Wongs, whom I do not know.

The IR guidelines are meant to give us neighbors a voice, not a veto. The council's action has given a veto to every citizen in town who has any complaint about any residential development ever proposed that falls under the guidelines.

Richard C. (Dick) Placone is a former administrator at University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford Medical Center. He founded a health-business development company in 1985, and was co-founder of MasterPeace 2001, a national conference on the Art of Living in the 21st Century. He can be e-mailed at


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