There have been 15 design variations of Forrest Linebarger’s Mora Drive housing projects, and Thursday night’s Los Altos Hills Planning Commission meeting left little question there will be plenty more before town officials are willing to approve his plans.
“I thought we might have it this time, but I see we’re still far away,” the developer said.
Commissioners, too, expressed dismay.
“The project is going in the right direction, but so incrementally that it just also leaves me distressed,” Susan Mandle said.
The meeting was meant as an opportunity for commissioners to review the developer’s progress designing homes for 10728 and 10758 Mora Drive, and to provide guidance for the projects after hearing from him, town Planning Department staff and residents. But three and a half hours spent on the topic Thursday resulted in a continuance and a vague directive: scale down.
“The applicant has to understand that we can move numbers here and there, but eventually we can’t have that size of a home on that lot,” Commissioner Kavita Tankha said.
Linebarger wants to build two homes of approximately 6,000 square feet each, but at 0.374 acres and 0.398 acres, his properties don’t meet Los Altos Hills’ 1-acre lot standard, and the town’s setback rules mean he must secure conditional development permits to build; without permits, the homes could measure just 8 feet and 2.5 feet wide on the skinny lots.
Residents rally in opposition
More than 200 Los Altos Hills residents have signed a petition opposing the projects, and more than a dozen took to the podium Thursday to urge the commission to deny Linebarger’s permit requests.
Referring to the homes as “high-density development,” neighbors objected to their modern facades, size and proximity to other properties – as close as 11.5 feet in the latest designs.
“The primary responsibility of the town is to support the general welfare and well-being of its residents by the enforcement of its codes and regulations,” said Mora Drive resident Mary Jo Feeney. “It is not the responsibility of the town to enable nonresident developers to profit from their business decisions.”
In 2006, when Linebarger purchased the lots for $2.875 million, they were part of a larger, 1.6-acre parcel located in unincorporated Santa Clara County. He managed to divide the parcel into three before the neighborhood’s 2012 annexation into Los Altos Hills: nos. 10728 and 10758 and a 0.8-acre lot between them containing a modest, 1940s-era home. He sold the middle lot in 2016 for $2.548 million in a move his critics say was calculated to prevent the forced merger of the lots into pieces that would more closely conform with the town’s 1-acre standard.
“I do not see any fairness if Mr. Linebarger gets to build under these conditions, especially because he’s the one who generated this problem of having two small parcels,” said Mora Drive resident Esther John.
Town attorneys are now tasked with exploring whether the law entitles developers to variances when the construction hardships they face are self-induced.
Linebarger insists he’s made concessions to appease commissioners and his neighbors, including narrowing homes, lowering their profiles and concentrating square footage in the basements at the cost of sacrificing lighting and ventilation.
“It’s a totally redesigned plan based on the comments I got from you guys last time,” Linebarger said. “And I know I didn’t meet every comment. I know that. But I’ve always got to be able to build something that I can in the end sell. … I don’t want to build a matchbox that somebody can’t live in.”
Commissioner Jim Basiji pointedly asked if there was any design Linebarger’s Mora Drive neighbors might support.
“If it really came down to it, I think there are prefabricated homes people live in that are 8-feet wide,” said resident David Kehlet. “That might actually work.”