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In the zone: Residents from two LA neighborhoods ask city planners to reject changes

Most Los Altos Planning Commission meetings are fairly quiet, but the Feb. 7 gathering featured numerous pauses in the presentations to hush the murmurings of residents who filled nearly every seat in the chamber.

Concerned residents turned out en masse to protest proposed zoning changes in the Marshall Meadows and Montebello Acres neighborhoods they believe are inconsistent with the look and feel of their areas.

All commissioners but Phoebe Bressack attended the meeting, which marked the return of Chairman Alexander Samek, who had not appeared among his colleagues since his DUI arrest in November.

58-year drought

During the second study session on establishing an R3-4.5 Zoning Ordinance for Marshall Meadows, located on the north side of Homestead Road at the intersection of Fallen Leaf Lane, the only district in Los Altos with that zoning designation, several residents demanded that their neighborhood be left alone for fear of density in an already-dense corridor.

The applicant who requested the ordinance change, Paul Lovoi, advocated for residents’ freedom to modernize their homes and possibly even add a second story. His request was met with groans.

“My neighboring house is ginormous … it’s just towering over us,” Cynthia Way resident Karl Hansen said. “Because it is on a ridge, an important note is the two-story (houses) on the far right (of the neighborhood diagram) are indeed falling away toward the creek.”

The proposed zoning code draft, introduced by senior planner Steve Golden, was based on the similar R1-10 district because the lots are similar in size and dimension, have similar massing and maintain setbacks within surrounding R1-10 districts. The language was modified to personalize the code to the residences, not a single one of which has been rebuilt in the past 58 years, Golden said. The district has relied on state building codes since it was developed.

“This means that nobody has remodeled with the Building or Planning departments’ blessing in this area?” asked longtime Commissioner Ronit Bodner. “I think this neighborhood could benefit from allowing people to (update).”

Multiple commissioners said they could not determine whether there was consensus in the neighborhood to approve height exemptions enabling construction of second-story additions. As a result, they suggested that residents organize to vote for a single-story overlay district or adopt a designation that “preserves and maintains single-family neighborhoods, predominantly single-story in character,” according to the city of Los Altos’ website. The dedicated page on the website also mentions that the application costs $4,500 to submit.

Compliance versus comfort

Much to the dismay of all local residents who spoke on the zoning request for Montebello Acres – the subdivision of 831 Arroyo Road into two parcels – the commission unanimously voted to follow city staff’s recommendation to approve the application.

According to the staff presentation by associate planner Sean Gallegos, the project will split the property into two new parcels including an interior lot and a corner lot, 10,029 square feet and 13,404 square feet, respectively.

City staff received 19 emails from the 90 neighbors who live adjacent to or within 500 feet of the plot after many of them found out about the study session on the Nextdoor website, alleged Arroyo Road resident Laurie Look.

“We just found out about this two days ago,” Look said. “This should not be passed immediately because we don’t know what is going on and you probably haven’t heard from everyone that you probably will.”

Although one of the parcels’ frontage was changed to face Arroyo Road after notice was posted (possibly due to early neighbor opposition), many who attended the meeting opposed the subdivision because they felt it violated the Housing Element in the city’s General Plan, which declares that divisions must result in an “orderly and compatible development pattern.”

Community Development Director Jon Biggs and Commissioner Kimberly Mosley begged to differ, as a few other lots were subdivided from the 1960s to the 1980s in Montebello Acres that are approximately 10,000 square feet. The lots across Mountain View Avenue are approximately that size as well, Mosley said.

“I think given the information that we have, it is absolutely compatible,” Commissioner Doo Ho Lee said. “I understand the sentiment from the neighborhood, no doubt. I think we struggle with change, but it’s a neighborhood, and I think things change inevitably. I don’t see anything being proposed here that’s out of character.”

Story-pole policy

The Planning Commission unanimously endorsed authorizing city staff to send a letter asking the Los Altos City Council to reconsider the amount of time story poles must remain in place and the material wrapped around them.

Story poles are used in the construction phase to mark the outline of a project. Commissioners requested that the council consider flags as an alternative to netting, which some speculate may have caused safety problems with story poles in the past. Developer Mircea Voskerician, who appeared at the meeting to urge commissioners to find a better system, recounted a near-tragedy at his Altos One development on El Camino Real Dec. 1, six months after story poles were posted at his project, when a pole fell into a nearby unoccupied building.

Many of the commissioners strongly opposed the story-pole policy as a whole, including Bodner, who said the “desire to keep them is a desire to dissuade developers.” However, with Councilwoman Anita Enander in the audience – who has vocally supported the city’s story-pole policy – Commissioner Sally Meadows urged her colleagues to focus on the “low-hanging fruit” of shortened time limits and materials for story poles.

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