August 15, 2014

There have been rumblings lately – louder than usual rumblings – over the Architectural Site and Review Board and how well and how timely they do their job. There was a training session earlier in the year that exposed a fair amount of confusion among ASRB members (starting on page 15), about the ASRB role. Staff pointed that included pointing out to the members that it is not their job to pass judgment on how many square feet a house can be, although ASRB members immediately got to work trying to figure out code language to allow just that – i.e., “mass and bulk” or “specific constraints of the lot that preclude maxing out on allowable square footage.”

Despite this training effort, the rumblings have only gotten louder, with the ASRB taking more and more time to review projects, for example – seeing the same project up to FOUR times BEFORE it sending it on to the Planning Commission. With building activity exploding, the ASRB is holding up to three meetings a month and is still falling behind. The ASRB is tasked with a big workload that they’re seemingly making bigger, getting into the weeds with little details and often failing to see the big picture, at a real cost in dollars and time to COWs. The Board clearly is struggling with what they see as conflicts between the the General Plan, the Woodside Municipal Code and the Design Guidelines.

It was with this background that the Town COWncil recently held a special meeting with the ASRB. At the meeting, one ASRB member expressed his frustration with how overbroad he feels the ASRB’s attention has gotten, telling people that their house is too big or that it is too intensive a use even if the Code makes it is permissible on what he characterized as relatively unconstrained lots. He said he has heard from architects that they, “don’t know what’s okay to build in Woodside anymore.” He later said that some on the ASRB say that maximum house sizes “shouldn’t” be allowed – but as he pointed out, that’s what the Code allows. He said that the ASRB gets lengthy discussions about “too big,” “too massive,” “too intense,” – saying “that all we say.”

Other ASRB members strongly disagreed, saying that there should be MORE restrictions, and clearer language, to reduce building size from what’s allowed in the Code on “sensitive” or “constrained” lots. They said that people (shockingly!) look at the Code and believe that defines what they can build in Woodside – and these ASRB members were of the opinion that that’s not correct.

Another ASRB member noted that several times lately at formal reviews – done after perhaps several conceptual reviews and which should really be a rubber stamp at that point – new substantial issues are brought up by other ASRB members to the surprise of homeowners.

The COWncil members in turn expressed their frustration with the process as it is functioning, or dys-functioning, right now. Peter Mason noted that the idea behind the conceptual reviews was to get initial ideas and get a project going in the right direction with what he called “Woodside design.” He said it was meant to be a quick review upfront for direction, and that the ASRB needs to make sure it’s not asking too much of applicants. Interestingly, Peter also claimed that if a project doesn’t get a 7-0 vote at the ASRB then “something’s wrong” (a startling statement at a time of noted divisiveness on the ASRB.) As Dave Tanner noted, people consider being approved as being approved. Mayor Dave Burow stated he’s “very troubled” that the ASRB spends it’s time making such judgments about house size, saying it’s a tortuous process and that he didn’t want the ASRB to decide that houses should be smaller than what is in the code.

As a result of the meeting, COWncil and Staff agreed to move forwards on possible Code changes related to basement size and reducing grading allowances – with COWncil member Tanner asserting that there should be a rule that says that homeowners can’t build tunnels or go beyond the edges of their buildings with basements. The work plan also included the idea of limiting house size (maximum floor area) on those so-called sensitive or constrained lots although, as is often pointed out at the ASRB itself, “every site is unique.” Is this a stealth way of reducing house sizes throughout Woodside, without labeling it as such in order to avoid the outcry that would result?

So, scary stuff. You can check it all out on MooTube. It’s definitely worth watching for a grim picture for Woodside.


  1. Fed Up and Broke

    We have a project exactly as described above. We went through 3 ASRB meetings, each time doing what they asked. At the concept meeting, we received many commendations and overall support for the proposal. But each subsequent meeting, new criticisms were raised, all of them entirely emotional and not based on the code nor any logical reference basis (“I feel like it’s too high” even though it’s the exact same height as the neighbor’s, and well under the height limit, and well under surrounding trees, and the immediate neighbors all think it’s just fine).

    The second, formal ASRB meeting requires story poles, but the ASRB members use this as new information and therefore an excuse to say, “it’s too high.” The ASRB also uses public comment, be it reasonable or not, as “new information” about a project. However, public comment is public comment, in the same way that ASRB members comment, not new information.

    At the third meeting, after having seen it plenty of times, and having incorporated every change the ASRB asked for, we heard, “It’s just too much massing” and “I have no idea what the right house is for the lot, but this isn’t it.” The ASRB was given stacks of documents, photos, and presentations explaining the site constraints, and the limited and undesirable alternatives but they still seemed to think there was some mysterious option that was better. It’s like asking us to build a house using an Escher drawing as a blueprint.

    Besides providing an emotional and whimsical review that isn’t remotely logic-based, the ASRB members do not hold themselves to the same standards that they dish out. Most of the ASRB members live in the most affluent areas of the community or own multiple homes that they have already rebuilt. Some of them have built homes or fences without permits, but they don’t mind to hold the rest of the community to totally unreasonable standards, and force exorbitantly costly redesigns to the people who present their projects.

    We have now spent double our design budget and we haven’t gotten a planning approval to proceed with building permits. We are left with few options, and Woodside may have missed an opportunity to properly fix a blighted property. Woodside should not use dysfunctional committees to prevent development such that citizens are left vulnerable when a major earthquake occurs. There will be far more deaths than should be acceptable when that earthquake comes because this dysfunctional process is preventing people from fixing their homes.

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