Arthur Meyers was out walking before Christmas when he noticed what he thought was a three-story home on Fairway Drive, near Los Altos Golf & Country Club.
“They don’t have any idea of the neighborhood,” he said of houses that seemed to tower over neighboring residences. “It’s just a huge box.”
According to the planning directors in both Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, however, such tall houses are not quite what they seem.
“Technically, you’re not allowed to do a three-story home in Los Altos,” said David Kornfield, planning services manager for Los Altos. “You can only do two stories up to 27 feet.”
But Kornfield noted that there are workarounds.
“It is pretty typical of hillside development that floors stagger as they go down the hill,” he said. “At a distance it may seem like three stories, but when you look closer you see that it’s only two stories.”
As for Fairway Drive, it is in unincorporated Santa Clara County, under Los Altos’ zone of influence but not zoning control.
“The zoning is subject to the county’s regulations and permitting,” Kornfield said. “The zoning governs the size, setbacks and height.”
Kornfield added that historical properties, particularly Craftsman-style homes, may have been grandfathered in to Los Altos’ height limits.
Denise Welsh, a longtime realtor in Los Altos and the incoming president of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors, explained that some residents want to go all the way up to the maximum on their lots.
“There are height limitations, measured from ground level up,” she said. “Now the way they design the basements with light wells and exterior patios, I’ve seen some beautifully done basements.”
From the rear, these homes may look like they have three stories, but the relevant laws do not measure from the rear.
“From street level,” Welsh said, “you are still measuring the 27-foot height.”
According to Kornfield, the current height limit resulted from a 1991 decision to maintain neighborhood cohesiveness during a Silicon Valley boom.
“About 30 years ago, there was a big concern about even two-story construction in the city,” he said. “The city council decided the best approach would be to allow two-story homes with special design guidelines that focus on neighborhood compatibility, privacy and architectural integrity.”
Those guidelines were published in a 1991 report available on the city’s website. Suzanne Avila, planning director for Los Altos Hills, said there are similar guidelines above Los Altos, albeit accounting for the hillier lots.
“The height limit is 27 feet, so it is really not possible to have three stacked stories and stay within the height limit,” Avila said. “Some two-story homes include a basement which could be considered a third level; however, it is a below-grade element.”
Avila referred to “stepping elements” that could lead to a perception of three stories.
“There are some homes with stepping elements that could appear to be three stories when viewed from an outlying location,” she said. “Three-story facades are discouraged and are not typically approved.”
Realtors, contractors and architects are all aware of the limits, even if their clients are not.
“The whole purpose of optimizing the value of a piece of property is being able to develop it to its highest and best use,” Welsh said. “Some (purchasers) are very specific about wanting separate spaces.”
Los Altos is full of people who have exacting demands for their homes.
“Many people who are coming into the area have very unique requests and the financial resources to find, create or build that request,” Welsh said. “So it’s maybe a little bit different.”
Welsh added that many of the home designs that are becoming more popular now are accommodating limited land.
“We have to become very creative architecturally on how we design our housing,” she said.