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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Out of bounds? Out of bounds? (September 17, 2003)

When it comes to neighborhood boundaries, it's not always clear who's in and who's out

by Nisha Ramachandran

When Vanessa Davies went to her first Downtown North Neighborhood Association (DTNNA) meeting last June, she was surprised to find out she was not considered a member of the group. Davies, who lives on the west side of Middlefield Road, had been paying annual dues to the association since buying her house two years ago. She also received and distributed fliers for the group in the past.

"The whole time, I assumed we were part of DTNNA," Davies said. But after the meeting, she was left wondering why and when her side of Middlefield had been excluded from the association.

Three months later, her questions are still unanswered. Hopefully, however, an association meeting slated for Thursday will include a vote on whether Middlefield and three other streets that make up the neighborhood's boundary will be included in the group. A positive vote will give Davies and her neighbors the chance to vote on future DTNNA proposals.

Tied into the controversy is a heated debate regarding the current traffic-calming trial in Downtown North. Three months ago, the city of Palo Alto started a six-month program to block off traffic that used to cut through the neighborhood. While some neighbors laud the project as bringing much-needed peace to their streets, others have complained it has only shifted the flow of cars onto other roads.

Neighbors on both sides of the issue want to weigh in on the matter. For Davies, who opposes the new traffic roadblocks, being excluded from DTNNA raised the question of whether neighborhood associations can pick and choose their members based on the group's stance on a particular issue.

"Can (a) neighborhood association just redraw boundaries when they want?" she asked.

The controversy began when Dan Lorimer, president of the DTNNA, told Davies that membership in the association was restricted to the area bounded by, but not including, four streets: Alma Street, Lytton Avenue, Middlefield Road and Palo Alto Avenue.

"Have the lines of the neighborhood recently been redrawn?" Davies wrote in an e-mail to Lorimer the day after the June meeting. "I was shocked to find out that the president of DTNNA for the last six to eight years would disagree that we are under the DTNNA constituency."

Lorimer, who responded via e-mail, attributed the error to a change in the block-captain maps to during a two-year period when he was not president of the association. "This was an error which I did not realize had occurred," he wrote.

Lorimer, who supports the traffic-calming program, also wrote: "The boundary was set as described for a reason, which was to include a well-defined area where residents share common interest. The DTNNA set its boundaries as they are precisely so as to avoid the type of conflict between the interests of residents who live on Middlefield or the other arterials and those of residents within the neighborhood."

The association's bylaws do not explicitly state whether boundary streets are included or excluded from the association.

Two things have added to the who's-in-and-who's-out confusion. First, although the bylaws define University as the west-most boundary, a map on the organization's Web site excludes the area between Lytton and University for membership. Second, a city survey of Downtown North residents conducted in preparation for the traffic trial did include the west side of Middlefield Road, according to transportation engineer Carl Stoffel.

There are a number of neighborhood associations in Palo Alto and all of them have strikingly similar objectives: to address and protect the interests of the neighborhood. But depending on the association, the membership requirements and boundary issues vary.

"We're just volunteers working for betterment of community -- anyone is welcome to join," said Annette Ashton, chair of the Midtown Residents Association. Midtown considers residents within its borders of Oregon Expressway, East Meadow Road, Alma Street and Highway 101 to be members.

In contrast, the Barron Park Association requires a fee of $20 to join, although it makes exceptions in case of financial difficulty. For other groups, like Greenmeadow Community Association, their boundaries were defined decades ago when their development project was built.

Following the June meeting at which Davies said she was excluded from membership, the DTNNA steering committee met June 27 and discussed the association's boundaries. According to the minutes from the meeting: "DTNNA membership is the residential owners and renters in the Alma, Palo Alto Ave., Middlefield, Lytton area including those on the arterials and excluding those of the existing 101 Alma apartments as they have their own neighborhood association. This 'clarified' definition of the DTNNA membership will be ratified at our next meeting."

"It's a non-issue. It's a lot of fuss over nothing," Lorimer said recently. He doesn't believe this disagreement has affected residents on the boundary streets. "We were never trying to exclude anyone per se."

But this explanation doesn't satisfy Davies.

"It's a one-issue neighborhood group; all they care about is roadblocks," she said. "I believe that there is more to a neighborhood than roads. We share the same park (and) have the same creek overflow problems."

The DTNNA will be discussing traffic calming at All Saints Episcopal Church at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Waverley Street on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. All are welcome. Assistant Editor Jocelyn Dong contributed to this report. Nisha Ramachandran can be e-mailed at [email protected]


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