Tossing the COW?

February 2, 2012

“Cow Toss” was called “the stupidest app for iPhone ever” by Digital Thought Software. We are concerned that the Town’s new Residential Design Guidelines will be a real COW toss.

The Guidelines Subcommittee, made up of Town COWncil members Anne Kasten and Peter Mason, as well as Town notables from the Planning Commission and other boards, has been working for months on the new version of the Guidelines. MooTube covered the Subcommittee meeting on December 14, 2011 and were surprised that the focus seemed to be putting a lot more “teeth into the ‘Guidelines”. See for yourself here on MooTube.

We’ve been watching this effort to overhaul the Guidelines for years now. We support the effort to bring clarity to the approval process, however, we’ve become very cow-ncerned that the Guidelines might actually turn into another barrier to getting a permit for new or remodeled structures approved and built in Woodside.

The purpose of the Guidelines is to inform COWs and contractors of ‘look and feel’ of our Town, how to construct in accordance with our ever-elusive “rural character.” Woodside already as a reputation for its BDP (Byzantine Development Process). The idea of clear Guidelines is to let COWs know up front, what is likely to sail through the ASRB and Planning Commission. Guidelines should mean that applicants are treated the same, as distinct from the current process which is unpredictable and inconsistent. Guidelines should mean there is a less arbitrary process, not dependent on the whims or idiosyncratic biases of the multilayer of gatekeepers. It should not be a substitute ordinance. It should not preclude creative solutions to difficult sites. It should not prevent new ways of doing things or controlling for “taste” in areas which cannot be seen. In theory, the Guidelines should serve COWs well not limit what they can do.

At least some members of the Subcommittee appear to want the Guidelines to become another cudgel with which to beat COWs who want to improve their property. The “problem” was framed this way: contractors will come to the ASRB and say a design is built to Code, without having taken the Design Guidelines into account. Council member Kasen asked if there was a stronger word than ‘Guidelines.’ Outgoing Town Manager Susan George said there is but that this is a policy decision for the COWncil. We know what those words are: ‘rules’, ‘regulations’ ‘mandates’ and ‘laws. Does the COWncil really want to require that projects “shall” follow the “Guidelines” – making them more of a straitjacket than a guide post?

COWncil member Kasten said she worries that “someone with a lot of money and no experience in the Town” will forget the Guidelines and just follow the code – aka the law – in building their home. She said that the new ‘Guidelines’ need to be “something with meat in it” and that everyone who has served on the ASRB and the Planning Commission can describe times where applicants said the equivalent of “I don’t care, you can’t make me.” But it is not true. Under our Code, the Council has the final say. Thalia Lubin of the ASRB also likened the current process to ‘ask grandma not grandpa’ –i.e. trying to steer projects to avoid the ASRB and go straight to the Planning Commission, avoiding the ASRB entirely in some cases. Perhaps people want to avoid the ASRB because it tends to be arbitrary and to impose the whims of its members.

COWncil member Mason said some enforcement of the ‘Guidelines’ could be done easily by enforcement of Sustainability edicts. Kasten, revealingly, wanted the debate framed as the Town requiring things on behalf of the State of California, “not us in eliteness being capricious.” Neither makes much sense. Guidelines show what is clearly acceptable. not what is mandated. Where additional requirements are needed, they should be in the Code.

There was support to use the document as a template for a Commercial Design Guidelines system, “cribbed” from the RDG, a notion that will probably be on the work plan for next year. There was also discussion of the ‘Neighborhood Compatibility Section’ and making the overall document less confusing for laypeople. We agree!

The Subcommittee is planning another meeting. After that the matter will likely go to the COWncil to see if the COWncil as a whole does actually want true guidelines or if they want to impose more rigid mandates without formally adopting ordinances.

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