Mon09152014

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Council narrowly approves controversial house project

The Los Altos City Council last week narrowly approved a Ray Avenue family’s home reconstruction project, despite some neighborhood concerns about its size and appearance.

The council voted 3-2 in favor of Stefi and Anand Ganesan’s resubmitted plans to construct a 3,278-square-foot, two-story home at 1055 Ray Ave. Councilwomen Jeannie Bruins and Jan Pepper voted against the project.

The decision comes approximately one month after the Ganesans appeared before the council to appeal the Design Review Commission’s (DRC) April 30 rejection of their design based on concerns over bulkiness. The proposed home includes a 2,337-square-foot basement, a clerestory (high windows) element and an enclosed courtyard.

The council May 27 voted in favor of the family’s plan – by a 4-1 margin – but with conditions that included reducing the project’s bulk and mass.

The homeowners returned to the council last week with new plans that called for lowered sidewalls and eave lines – down to 12 feet, 2 inches and 12 feet, 1 inch, respectively. The home previously featured eave lines of more than 13 feet.

Still, Stefi Ganesan said some neighbors remained “unfair and unreasonable” despite the design changes.

“They cannot be satisfied. … They just don’t want this and it’s very subjective – we regret that, because we certainly wanted to make something work,” she said.

Rilma residents still opposed

Several residents on adjacent Rilma Lane said they remain opposed to the project because of its size. Los Altos attorney Harry Price, representing two neighbors against the project, told the council that there were multiple reasons to reject the Ganesans’ plans.

“The largest (reason) is that it didn’t meet your requirements of reducing bulk and mass,” Price said.

Raman Tenneti said his neighbors’ project still didn’t meet the intent of the city’s residential design guidelines. He added that because the guidelines are referenced in the city’s zoning code, accepting the Ganesans’ plans “amounts to approving a code violation.”

Los Altos City Attorney Jolie Houston, however, advised the council that claims about violating the city’s design guidelines were inaccurate.

“They are what they say – guidelines,” Houston said. “There’s no way to violate the guidelines because they are not a zoning code. They are referenced in the zoning code, but they’re not part of the code.”

Another Rilma Lane resident, Mike Stoops, said approving the family’s plans would set a bad precedent and allow others to circumvent DRC decisions. He added that the eave-line reductions offered by the Ganesans amounted to “almost nothing.”

But one nearby resident urged the council to support the project despite the “implied threat” of future litigation by some neighbors.

“It’s time to stand tall and not bend to threats and do what you, the city council, were elected to do,” said Mike Posch, who lives on Ray Avenue.

Council offers narrow approval

Like some of the Ganesans’ neighbors, the council appeared split on the proposed residential project. Pepper noted that her May 27 vote against it hadn’t changed, because while the family’s project met code requirements, it did not adhere to the “intent and the spirit” of the city’s design guidelines.

Bruins also voiced her opposition, noting that the reductions simply didn’t go far enough and amounted to “another attempt at chipping away at the project.”

“By doing so, we’re not meeting the overall objective set forward in our design guidelines,” said Bruins, who voted for the proposed home May 27. “So I think we’ve kind of missed the boat here.”

Councilman Jarrett Fishpaw countered that he “completely” supported approving the project. Councilwoman Val Carpenter said she didn’t see the project causing an abrupt change to the neighborhood. She called the matter “the most controversial single-family residence proposal that I can recall in 14 years of serving” on city commissions and the council.

“It also seems to me that, based on tonight’s public testimony and (Price’s) position, that I’m not sure any two-story home would be acceptable to the homeowners on Rilma,” she said.

Mayor Megan Satterlee proved to be the tiebreaker, telling her colleagues that she supported the project because it would blend in with the rest of the neighborhood. She noted that three of the six Ray Avenue homes near the Ganesans’ property are two-story structures. She added that the project’s clerestory element – a source of concern from some neighbors – “completely eliminates” privacy concerns when compared with a traditional two-story house.

“When I compare the May 27 drawings to the drawings I have before me tonight, I see a reduction in bulk, ” she concluded.

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