Hills officials pursue rules to combat high-density development

In an effort to curb future, high-density residential development à la Forrest Linebarger’s controversial Mora Drive project, the Los Altos Hills City Council took steps last week toward pursuing rules to govern the creation of substandard lots and the potential allowances granted to existing ones.

“This council has to come up with some real, workable solutions that allow us to get our arms around how we’re going to address these going forward,” Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan said.

The council at Thursday’s monthly meeting directed town staff to research and uncover the possible legal ramifications of solutions such as the one that sparked the discussion, Councilwoman Michelle Wu’s proposal to declare lots that don’t meet requirements of the town’s general plan (absent extreme variances) as “unbuildable” and to deny their owners development application approval.

“I would like to ask the council to consider a resolution to prevent development of (underlying) substandard lots such as (the) Linebarger case from happening again,” Wu wrote in a memo. “Early prevention could save the applicants and the town a lot of time and money, avoid high-cost litigation, and improve neighborhood unity.”

Wu is alluding to the apparent disunity of Mora Drive. Residents of the street have spent years fighting Linebarger’s proposed development of a 1.6-acre parcel he purchased there for $2.875 million in 2006. The Portola Valley resident, a developer, capitalized on historical underlying lot lines to divide the property into three parcels all considered “substandard” because they measure less than an acre in size, the Los Altos Hills gold standard. He sold off the middle parcel for $2.548 million in January 2016 but has struggled to create housing designs for the two remaining 0.4-acre slices that are acceptable to city council members and planning commissioners; declaring the projects as much too large for the narrow lots, they declined variances that would allow Linebarger to sidestep the town’s 30-foot side setback requirements. The council in August upheld a Planning Commission decision to deny site development permits for the properties. Meanwhile, Linebarger is suing the town and claims city officials interfered with his attempts to develop his land before it was annexed in November 2012.

‘Unfortunate scenario’

It’s an unfortunate scenario best avoided in the future, according to Mayor John Radford.

“I don’t want a developer scouring lots in Los Altos Hills to find underlying lots that they then buy the parcel with the very specific intention of being able to then develop multiple properties on that parcel,” Radford said.

Some Mora Drive residents, including longtime Linebarger opponents Dave Kehlet and Esther John, praised Wu’s proposed resolution, but neighbor Hal Feeney said the council should continue to deter overdevelopment by simply enforcing the existing setback requirements.

Eric Evans of Buena Vista Drive echoed City Attorney Steve Mattas’ warning that new rules could subject the town to lawsuits if they constitute an unlawful taking of private land.

“Some people have purchased perhaps substandard lots with the idea of developing a home on them, and the idea of taking the property owner’s rights away to develop that lot just seems unacceptable to me,” Evans said.

Town staff members expect to report their findings during the February city council meeting. The Planning Commission will consider any new proposals.

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