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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Editorial: City seeks balance in 'granny units' Editorial: City seeks balance in 'granny units' (March 09, 2005)

Fears of 'tsunami' of second units appear to be unfounded as city moves toward adopting new standards for second units on single-home lots

Updating a city's zoning ordinance is a topic most residents will go a long way to ignore.

But some residents will be paying close attention next Monday night, when the City Council will approach the culmination of a year-long study of two major components of the current zoning-ordinance update -- years overdue. The update is meant to bring the zoning ordinance -- which regulates what people can and can't do on their properties -- into conformance with the broader policies of the city's Comprehensive Plan.

One element at issue is whether "granny units" -- small apartments or garage units with separate entrances -- would be permissible on what otherwise are "single-family lots." The problem is that when a family member is no longer on the scene (if they ever were), the units become rentals, and increase the number of cars parked on the street.

A second issue is whether some homes on "substandard lots" should be allowed to have second-story additions, providing they meet setback and privacy-intrusion standards.

Some residents have raised concerns about the impacts of creating a lot of second units within a single-family-home neighborhood -- especially relating to added cars parking in the area.

The change could allow as many as four out of five single-family properties in Palo Alto to have small second units of up to 450 square feet, or 900 square feet for lots of more than 135 percent larger than minimum lot size.

"It would be a zoo," one resident of Whitclem Drive, not far from the Rickeys Hyatt site, protested in a Weekly story (Feb. 4). "Where are the cars going to park?"

The city staff has softened the impact slightly by raising the minimum-lot size from 6,000 to 7,000 square feet, and requiring that setbacks, daylight plane and other standards be met.

Balanced against the concerns of neighbors are two factors that both complicate and simplify the issue: (1) a continuing housing crunch that has crowded hundreds or thousands of middle-income workers out of the Palo Alto area, and (2) state legislation in 2003 that makes it more difficult for cities statewide to say no to second-units on single lots. The zoning-ordinance change would allow Palo Alto to regulate how the units are built, to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.

The second-story issue is a different matter and requires more careful thought. It is a particular concern to areas with smaller lots, such has College Terrace. Planning officials note that many homes there are already maxed out and the families living there need more space. Allowing a second-story in some cases might prevent the combining of two or even three lots in order to build more "monster homes" in some areas, one resident said at a community meeting on the topic last November. We doubt that's a major trend, given the price of lots.

The additions would be subject to the individual-review process that has been used successfully for more than 200 additions in recent years, according to Planning Director Steve Emslie. Even so, there is a "variance" process in place for such additions, and even though it is a cumbersome process we are unconvinced that the second-story change is justified.

In any case, the impact of either change is likely to be evolutionary rather than dramatic, based on a recent history of only three or four granny units going in per year. Even with the relaxed rule, only eight or so would be expected to be added per year, according to one estimate. At that rate, or even a multiple of that rate, it would take a long time to make a serious dent on the more than 14,000 single-family-residential lots in town.

City officials, aided by some neighborhood leaders of areas that will be especially affected, have tried hard to raise community awareness -- holding five community meetings around town in the past year and sending out more than 15,000 mailings to residents.

Balancing the desires or needs of some residents to add on to their homes -- especially when their lot may just barely miss the square-footage or size dimensions for minimum lot - with the concerns of those worried about long-term changes in neighborhood character is a special challenge.

Emslie also says the city will carefully monitor the impacts of any changes and will be ready to make adjustments if things begin to get out of hand in terms of either granny-unit or second-story overload in some areas.

Given the careful approach, we support the move to ease the creation of second units -- while acknowledging that they will do almost nothing to mitigate the housing shortage -- but are unconvinced the second-story change is warranted.

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