HOMEOWNERS BEWARE – Possible Zoning Change

July 1, 2014

Twice recently the Town COWncil has heard from representatives of the Woodside Heights neighborhood regarding their desire to increase the allowed size of their main residences from 4,000 square feet to 5,500 square feet, without increasing the total allowed square footage on individual properties – the square footage would be “taken” from already-allowed accessory living quarter allowances. The neighborhood, which borders Atherton, appears strongly united – many packed a recent Town COWncil meeting hearing which lasted two hours on the issue.

At that meeting, Town Manager Kevin Bryant characterized it as a “simple change” in the code, and asked the Town COWncil whether the COWncil wished to allow it and whether the Town should pick up the cost of the rule change or if the neighborhood should. He noted that the Town hadn’t polled other areas that might be similarly interested in such a change, like Emerald Hills. Greg Smith, speaking for the Woodside Heights Homeowners Association pointed out later that those neighborhoods hadn’t initiated the process and that that wasn’t a reason to slow down any change in the rules. He stated that the Heights was different than some other neighborhoods, being geographically isolated from the rest of Woodside, and that literally on the other side of the street were homes that were twice as big as the allowed homes in Woodside Heights.

Chair of the Woodside Planning Commission Marilyn Voelke spoke in opposition to the proposal, stating she was “alarmed” at zoning one zone at the request of some percentage of the zone residents, and that if zoning was to be adjusted at all, the whole Town should be looked at the same time – which almost certainly would kill this plan for the foreseeable future. She also stated she was “alarmed” at the argument about being concerned about what was across the street in another town, and raised the specter of our whole Town becoming like Atherton, stating there could be a “domino effect.” A man from Woodside Hills also spoke against the idea, saying that people move to Woodside “knowing it can be hard to get projects done” and you can look at a house two ways, as a home or an investment, and that this was investment thinking.

However, most of the people who spoke at the meeting were residents of the Heights in favor of the proposal. They rebutted the charges of “investment” thinking, saying that the neighborhood is very stable and has low turnover, that allowing this change would decrease the need for “compounds” of multiple outbuildings that cover the land much more than a single larger house would, and that this would allow people with children to move into the neighborhood over time.

The COWncil, as usual, hemmed and hawed. COWncil member Peter Mason stated that “as an architect, the house size in the Heights is small” and it can be hard to build projects there because of it. He went on to say however that he thought that a 33% size increase is “a lot,” and that the Town should study it, noting that the COWncil just recently had a discussion with the ASRB, which is of the opinion that some residences in Town are “too large.” COWncil member Dave Tanner agreed that increasing maximum house size by 1500 s.f. is too much, but some increase is good and that the Town should study it.

COWncil member Barbara Gordon said she was sympathetic to the request, though wary of unintended consequences – and noted the reality that when the Town chooses to “study” something, it can literally take years. COWncil member Ron Romines was notably unsympathetic, saying he considered this “spot zoning” and that the Town has a “well-thought-out” zoning scheme.

COWncil member Anne Kasten noted that people are spending much more time at home these days, working and exercising and doing lots of things at home that in the past were done outside the home. She stated plainly that this would allow for the creation of better homes in the neighborhood and that she didn’t want to see “analysis paralysis” stop the increase.

COWncil member Tom Shanahan was probably the loudest voice against the increased house size, saying it would lead to larger families and more impact on Town services and that the Town could study it as long as they wanted but he didn’t think it was “going to fly”, stating that many people in Town agreed with him.

Inevitably, the COWncil agreed to study the issue and wrap it into the monolithic – and potentially development-killing – discussions they’re having with the ASRB, which include shrinking basement size and decreasing house sizes even further on sensitive lots.

This led to visible anger amongst the residents of the Heights in attendance at the meeting, with Greg Smith accusing the COWncil of “deep-sixing” the proposal. COWncil member Tanner responded that the project wasn’t “deep-sixed” but that the Town is following its work plan. Smith replied that the COWncil had managed to “translate what was a relatively simple request” into a really long process. He and the residents of the neighborhood then walked out of the meeting.

It was definitely an energetic meeting! And while we don’t know whether the Heights proposal as requested is a good idea or not, the fact that the COWncil can’t address it in a reasonable time frame is deeply worrisome. We are also concerned greatly by the demonization of homeowners committing the great crime of wanting to increase the value of their home! This kind of thinking is dangerous and pernicious. It makes us worry just what is going to come of the Town’s “study process” with the ASRB regarding basement and main residence size.

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