by Peter Gauvin
Six weeks after passing a blanket ban on demolition of all older homes in Palo Alto, the City Council has replaced it with interim regulations that will allow some demolitions to proceed but with design controls to ensure that replacement homes do not draw the ire of neighbors. On Monday, the council heard concerns about the new rules from families wondering how they would affect their home improvement plans, from real estate agents over requirements for detached garages, and from an older man who was denied a demolition permit to tear down a house ravaged by fire.
But mostly the council and the city's staff were complimented for moving swiftly to ease the impact of the moratorium on homeowners while protecting Palo Alto's quaint neighborhoods from a rash of demolitions. This year alone, 62 demolition permits were granted for single-family homes in Palo Alto, 34 of them for homes built before 1940.
"I have some concerns about the regulations, but you can write rules forever; eventually it's time to play the game," Vice Mayor Joe Huber said before the unanimous vote. "These are interim regulations, and I emphasize the word interim. What we are trying to do is preserve the fabric of this community."
The interim regulations will go into effect on Nov. 28, 31 days after the council's vote. They will remain in effect for one year, unless the city can permanently update its 20-year-old historic resources ordinance.
Eric Morley of the Peninsula West Valley Association of Realtors said a title search shows that the new regulations will apply to approximately 3,800 homes built before 1940.
Morley said real estate agents recognize there's a delicate balance between the value of historic properties and property rights. He and others requested that a citizen review committee formed to make sure this balance is maintained as permanent regulations are developed.
Under the new regulations, remodels of pre-1940 homes can take place without triggering the compatibility review standards if property owners retain at least 50 percent of the exterior walls of the house and do not significantly alter the structure of the front facade.
The new standards regulate roofing materials, types of windows, detached garages and anything else that would significantly alter the architectural compatability with the neighborhood.
Council member Ron Andersen said he'd like to look at eventually developing similar design regulations for non-historic areas like south Palo Alto. The neighborhoods may not be historic, he said, "but they certainly have character" that can be lost when houses are torn down and replaced by incongruous structures.
Dick DeStefano protested the denial of a demolition permit for his home at 1035 Los Robles Ave., which he said suffered more than $500,000 in damage from a fire on Jan. 16. The house is unliveable, he said, and he is losing time to rebuild while his demolition permit is in suspense until the end of November.
Planning Director Ken Schreiber said that the pre-1940 house was partially damaged in the fire, but since DeStefano did not apply for a demolition permit until last week and city building inspectors say the building is not structurally unsafe, it is subject to the moratorium.
Local developer and city Planning Commissioner Jon Schink said his initial reaction to the moratorium was one of alarm that property rights were being violated, but he strongly supports the ordinance. "I think that the crude and callous behavior of some builders in this community demanded that you enact this moratorium."
"I'm happy we unleashed this animal," said Council member Gary Fazzino of the moratorium. ". . . I truly think it's going to have a very positive impact on the community."
Fazzino said he agreed with suggestions from real estate agents and others that a citizens' committee should be formed to develop permanent regulations through preparation of a new historic resources ordinance.
To further ease the impact of the regulations on homeowners, the council voted unanimously to adopt significantly lower fees for determining if older homes have historic merit. The fee will be $100, instead of the $500 to $1,000 fees that the council considered two weeks ago. The city will subsidize the rest of the cost.
"I think it's very important that we do not break the bank of those who want to participate," Fazzino said. "The city, to some degree, should help bear those costs."
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