September 6, 2018

We frequently hear from COWs that the building approval process is a “nightmare” “overly burdensome” and “unfair”. We have been writing about concerns about permitting issues and policy for years.

While a few things have improved, a sampling of comments from Woodside Citizens from the Town’s COWmmunity Survey show there is still a lot of improvement needed. There were some positive responses but the vast majority were negative. The most consistent issues are that there was no response from the Town to multiple emails or calls from residents; the process was unnecessarily arduous; Staff were more obstructionists than helpful; and policies are applied differently from house to house and property to property.
Some of the comments are quoted below.

“I contacted the City Manager and Code Enforcement regarding illegal use of residential property for a rental property to 12-14 individuals at 125 Northgate Ave. The house is being rented like an apartment building in violation of City Ordinances. Many neighbors contacted the town about this. There was no follow up or answer to our requests and inquiries.”

“Staff didn’t know the right answer “

“Received tree permits for removing Eucalyptus and Pines. I think the town rules (not Town employees) are a bit onerous regarding trees. Sure we all love trees, but in view areas (such as where I live) tall trees actually reduce the beauty of the neighborhood and if residents want to remove 5 trying to do any project in this town is beyond impossible, the rules and regulations as well as all the red tape is enough to make someone move. This is amplified by the snail’s pace of movement by town personnel working in various departments. Trying to work within the towns system been a nightmare, the only way to get anything done is to hire a consultant to represent you and make sure the process is moving along. Totally adversarial as well as incredibly expensive. A most unpleasant experience trying to work with the town.”

“I called to complain about oversize delivery vehicles driving through the Glens and frequently getting stuck on Hillside Drive. As I recall I received no call back from Public Works even though I requested a reply.”

“I feel things were not handled well by either the Town Council nor the Building Department in trying to work out a solution to the Peterson issue 230 Grandview Drive. The Town had previously issued a statement that the right-of-way for Grandview was only the paved area, when our titles state that it is a 50 foot right-of-way. Peterson ended up suing everyone on Grandview and Espinosa. We are still working on a settlement of this many months later. It’s been very time consuming and costly to a large number of people.”

“Some of the requests seemed to be unreasonable, i.e. a sand bocce ball court being regarded as impenetrable or hard scape and being told I had to remove it. Gravel driveway being calculated same as concrete. Most engineers seem to think this is ridiculous.”

“We have had an ongoing issue with a neighbor building and excavating without permits. There has been no communication with us about what is being done to address this issue. The illegal work continues.”

“Way too many regulations and red tape. “

“Frontline person was not helpful and did not appear interested in being helpful. It was a simple matter that shouldn’t have been made difficult and time consuming.”

“I thought that the planning/building process for a remodel took too long.”

“Architectural and Design Review was a nightmare! I wanted a fence around my property and some woman who later was elected to the Town Council wanted me to raise the fence periodically to allow animals to come and go! How ridiculous! We were building the fence in part to keep them out!“

“They complained aggressively about plants growing alongside of the road. This is a multiple repeat issue. Plants were required by state facility. Still required and still required. Find out the facts before making a big deal about it. Second, I complained confidentially about a neighbor’s abuse of their special zoning agreement. Instead of handling it confidentially as I clearly requested, town council member went to my neighbor told them I complained. Suggested planting more screening. Did not require fixing their abuse. I could have done that. But I wanted abuse fixed. And I did not want bad relations with my neighbor. Total failure and negative outcome. Could have declined to do what I requested if they were not going to do it.”

“Conflicting permissions/information, arbitrary decisions, unwarranted and vindictive red tag, illegal entry onto property.”

“Have had an Application for a gate across private property submitted for 3+ YEARS and still have no resolution.”

“Little flexibility in partnering with homeowners on ways to address homeowner issues within the guidelines of Town Policies. It is simply not acceptable to answer every question for guidance and recommendations with a canned response to read the Guidelines online.”

“Planning dept has been easy and reasonable to work with, they are consistent and look to work with the town residents. Building department is very hit or miss. Some of the folks are friendly and cordial and professional. Others are extremely unprofessional and clearly have no interest in being helpful to their employers (the town residents). I’ve seen the same person be antagonistic with homeowners and then turn around and be very friendly/helpful to contractors/designers that they know. This double standard should not exist. Homeowners are treated like an annoyance and are talked over, ignored and hit with random requests that change from visit to visit. The risk of voicing concerns publicly is far too high in such a small town where decisions and administration flow through a very small group of people. Other town survey results have shown the same trend over the years.”

“I’m not sure if it was building or planning. I wanted to add a covered structure (like a pergola) beside my garage to protect parked cars from falling tree limbs and sap. While the people helping me were very friendly and quite good at explaining the procedures, the process that is in place seems completely unfair to the homeowner. Because my garage is in the setback, permitting the covered parking structure was going to involve a huge outlay of expenses in order to appeal for an exception, but no indication could be given if the exception would be granted. To think that people have literally tens of thousands of dollars they can lay down with the possibility that they will simply be told “no” you can’t proceed with this project is crazy.”

“Questions regarding eucalyptus trees- I think the reception was more of an attitude that I was bothering them.”

“Admin is always prompt and helpful. Engineering is a giant improvement since the change in Town Engineer. However, there is still a ways to go to address some of the road issues. One of my concerns with Engineering policies is that some of the requirements for homeowners’ residential construction, the Town itself doesn’t follow when it does Public Works construction or maintenance. If the Town is going to impose expensive or onerous requirements on homeowners, the Town should follow the same rules. Planning is making progress. There have been some really encouraging developments, but it’s a bit early to say if they are working or not. Building is prompt and inspections are reasonable, but the structural engineering consultant contract is insufficient, and review turnarounds for simple changes are way too long. Also, code references need to be appropriate for the building element.”

“Staff is inconsistent on response times to phone calls and e-mails from applicants, and in applying the same rules to everyone. There seem to be more and more layers of bureaucratic hurdles to applications, making the process more complicated and more expensive for doing remodeling or new construction.”

“Building in this town is arduous and prolonged, many personal options appear to filter into the planning/building process.”

“ASRB process was excruciatingly awful and dominated by the capricious opinions of the board members, with no traceability to the design guidelines. Planning requirements (disturbed earth, “permeable” paving area, etc.) rules are ridiculously complex and serve no obvious purpose. Planning needs to allow us to use our property any way we want unless there is a *demonstrable* and *quantifiable* negative impact on other specific property owners, and when those exist they need to be identified and quantified.”

“Engineering and public works were very responsive in cleaning out the culvert on my street. The Building Department took a bit too long in reviewing our modest home remodel project. The Town has a bad reputation to deal with on building issues.”

“Building has become entirely too complicated and lengthy! While we need rules and regs for any new construction, does it have to take two years???? Admin. is always polite and helpful. Engineering: I have not been satisfied in any of my contact with Town engineers (particularly when we were siting the bronze horses on Village Hill — the young man who was sent by the town couldn’t even calculate a 30 degree angle. I finally brought a triangle form from home to solve the questions. Nor was he in any way helpful or friendly, just truculent and dumb.”

“The process of any home improvement project or building project (in particular the ASRB) is absurd and not constructive and makes it a deterrent for people to want to live in Woodside 1/29/2018 11:46 AM 39 Building/Planning is unnecessarily complicated with numerous redrafts. Each one takes time and money. It should be stream lined and simplified. It does not seem like the town is there to help its constituents. It feels more like a relationship that does not care much what its constituents think. This survey is the first positive thing I have seen to move things in the other direction.”

“House remodeling or construction in Woodside is a daunting task due to regulations and amount of time it takes to get any permit. A less restrictive and more streamline process would be a huge win for all Woodside residents. It is making our family reconsider if we want to live here. Also restrictions for 1 acre properties that are in SCP 7.5 zone are completely unreasonable.”

“Town is never easy to work with about remodeling, adds a lot of cost to the process. Don’t understand why the town makes maintaining a home even more difficult and expensive. Would not buy a home in Woodside again based on the level of bureaucracy.”

“Just took a long time.”

“The time it takes to receive formal comments on permit applications seems excessive. However, I’ve generally been pleased with the help I’ve received from Planning & Building at the counter. The people are friendly and really try to help. I think many of the requirements they need to enforce are over the top and unnecessary, but I certainly don’t blame the people just trying to do their jobs. My one suggestion would be to remind those personnel that many of us don’t deal with permits, construction, codes every day. I felt like my permit application would have taken half the time if the Town had specific forms/checklists/suggestions to help individuals (not construction or engineering personnel) wind their way through the process.”

“I obtained a building permit for a patio project that we never executed. I was advised to hire an outside consultant just to advance the project through the Town. I was happy to do that, but the fact that a homeowner might not be able to do this on their own is a bit troubling. The people managing the building department were actually very nice, although I simply picked up my permit and was not involved in the lead up to obtain the permit. On the one hand, things have improved in the building department (compared to 25 to 30 years ago when everything was adversarial), but things are much more complicated for a homeowner to execute on their own.”

“Planning regime is out of touch and unhelpful. It is really not working for the residents.”

“When I enter the Woodside Town Hall, I am amazed at the number of staff a town of 5000 employs, and wonder how much regulation has to do with needing to find things for the staff to do. I regularly hear from real estate agents about how our property values are negatively impacted, because of Woodside’s poor reputation for permitting (e.g. the time needed; decisions that are later re-visited; etc) Question: Why do we need to have our own permitting, etc? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just merge this type of function with Portola Valley’s? The common staff could make different determinations, depending on the local code covering the project.”

“Public works gets totally swamped in storms, so culvert flooding & cleanouts can queue behind more serious emergencies (but houses or garages can get flooded). Planning is labryinthian but you know that already. Once engaged staff is good, but the rules are nuts.”

“The Town’s one size fits all approach to building and development approvals are unfair and place a disproportionate burden on small remodel/improvement projects. Arcane rules, appropriate for large multi-million dollar projects, place an extreme financial ans schedule burden on smaller projects. Issues that could be resolved with site visits by planning staff require expensive civil engineering surveys to prove/validate issues that could be evaluated by a field visit.”

“Slow response time from the Planning Department and Public Works.”

“I wanted to do some construction and found that local codes would not allow me to do what I wanted. The staff was friendly and informative. I was simply disappointed in the answer I received. Don’t agree with the restrictions.”

“The old ASRB process (I understand this has been changed recently) was too subjective. Receiving feedback that “Arts and Craft style lighting is not true to California ranch home style” is not useful when planning to construct a new home.”

“Woodside was unable to influence Caltrans on Highway 84 problems. My request for enforcement of noise ordinances applying to motorcycles was ignored on multiple occasions.”

“Seems that every time something needed to be reviewed, there was yet another “oh, by the way, need more $$$”. Took longer to get permits for our project than the project took to complete.”

“The process to make modifications to a home is painful beyond words. Neighbors fighting a new neighbor throughout the entire process makes it hard to build a sense of community when the first step in trying to come into Woodside as a new resident is full of hostility.”

“Lengthy process to obtain simple permits. Staff seems intent on dragging things out. Public works was quick to respond to a problem on our street.”

“We wanted to rebuild our existing deck-no changes, just rebuild it, the fee was something like $700 just to submit plans. Appalling. There was a dead Oak on town property and it took coming in twice to the office to get someone out to remove it. Also, complained about the entrance to the Glens several times…nothing done.”

“OMG the planning and building process is horrible. The additional cost they put into a project is absurd, it is great for contractors and consultants as there’s all kinds of absurd requirements which in the end do not add any value and are a huge waste of money for homeowners. The entire system seems to be geared towards providing full CYA for the town and full employment for all the building trades from architects to consultants. In my case I believe it added a full 25% to the cost of a project.”

“Woodside has a proven reputation for being one of the worst towns to get through planning and building. My personal experience adds to that. The process is absurd, has no clarity or guidelines, has no appeal process and the staff – though competent – is never willing or able to give answers that one can rely upon before engaging significant expenses.”

“Planning and building departments were very difficult to deal with and resulting in multiple delays to our project. My architect was very frustrated having to make so many trips to the planning/building department and said it was the hardest city department she’s had to work with.”

“I left a message and the call was not returned. I called again and was directed to the same voice mail at which time I called the folks at the desk who said they would share the message.”

“Building and planning department is grossly inefficient and badly outdated. While several of the towns and municipalities around have adopted newer technologies and practices for ensuring safety and code compliance, Woodside is still stuck in the practices from 30 years ago. Don’t believe me? Just check on their paper storage requirements and how much of our tax $$s are being spent there. Really!? 5 copies of each large printed paper page per application!? 5 copies of wet stamped? It’s like every submitter is presumed guilty unless they prove otherwise. There are particular individuals who have taken it upon themselves to insert their own uneducated interpretation of Building Codes into their interactions with individuals who are skilled, licensed and bonded in their professions. Moreover, the B&P department is hostile towards owner / builders, their very constituents who they are ostensibly paid to serve. It’s understandable that there may be a need to have 3rd party review for complicated plans but for simple plans? Why does it cost thousands of dollars in permit fees to review simple landscaping and drainage plans? Why is a wet stamp from a paid professional insufficient to establish the needed assurance for correctness and safety of designs. I would like the Town Council to take a long hard look at this part of our government with the intent of dredging the swamp. I’d like to see the next election cycle make this a pivotal issue. I intend to ask every candidate for elected position this line of questioning and I encourage my neighbors to do the same. I suspect that there are plenty of Woodside residents who have HORROR STORIES of their interactions or the interactions of their contractors with B&P and there seems to be no relief in sight. It’s time for a change.”

“The planning and building process in this town is embarrassing. The rules in place for building do not apply to half of the homes in town and people struggle to comply instead of the town being amicable for each case. There is a reason people live in Menlo Park instead of Woodside.”

“I contacted the Town about damage to a roadway due to new home construction a few months ago. Staff promised they would make the homeowner/contractor fix the damage – so far, it has not happened.”

“I was going to start a simple project that needed a permit but the process seemed so complicated and expensive that I decided to not pursue it.”

“I called once to report trash that someone dumped along a public road and had to gently guide the call receiver into taking the info to give to Public Works, rather than her preferred plan of giving me another phone number to call.”

“We were given notice that one of our near neighbors planned to build in variance with the usual policies. I called in an attempt to find out what was going on, and never got a return phone call. After more than one visit to City Hall, someone pulled the neighbor’s plans for me. It was very time consuming for us, and the staff attitude wasn’t the greatest (front desk people).”

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