City of Los Altos takes heat from developer, neighbors regarding subdivision request

Nancy Ellickson/Special to the Town Crier
A single-story home currently sits on a single lot at 831 Arroyo Road – and that’s the way it will stay. The Los Altos City Council voted May 28 to reject a proposal from property owner Ying-Min Li that would subdivide the lot into two.

Before the Los Altos City Council torpedoed the proposed subdivision of a Montebello Acres lot last month, some neighbors engaged in legal wrangling. Now, the lot’s owner has hired representation of his own.

Neighbors of the 831 Arroyo Road site attended a Planning Commission meeting and four council meetings to voice concerns about splitting the 23,433-square-foot lot into two. Several comments delivered in person or submitted via email or written correspondence contended that the subdivision would negatively impact the neighborhood’s character. Typically, Montebello Acres homes – primarily one story – sit on large lots with exaggerated setbacks (approximately 40 feet from the street and 15 feet on each side yard), neighbors argued.

On a legal basis, a handful of residents claimed a covenant prohibiting such a subdivision was recorded upon establishment of their neighborhood. D.D. Hughmanick of Terra Law, the limited liability partnership representing a group of homeowners in Montebello Acres, raised the existence of the covenant in a letter to City Attorney Chris Diaz prior to the meeting.

“The covenant has long been in place and others have complied with it over the years,” Hughmanick wrote on behalf of his firm and its clients. “From our perspective it seems inappropriate for action to be taken which could have the effect of interfering with or disrupting the relationship between the various property owners subject to the covenant’s provisions.”

Although the attorney asserted that the subdivision – which would split 831 Arroyo into a 10,029-square-foot interior lot and a 13,404-square-foot corner lot – violates the covenant, city staff previously noted in their reports to the city council that the city adheres to site standards but has considered Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs) across the city to be a “civil matter between property owners and their respective homeowners association.”

Order in the chaos

The council ultimately rejected the proposed subdivision in a 3-2 vote May 28 on the grounds that it was not “orderly and compatible” with the surrounding residences. Councilwomen Jeannie Bruins and Neysa Fligor dissented. In their adopted resolution, city officials stated that they denied property owner Ying-Min Li’s application due to its lack of compliance with the Los Altos General Plan and its Housing Element.

“The predominant character of the surrounding neighborhood comprises substantially larger lots, which are at odds with the lots proposed in the application,” the resolution reads. “This incompatibility is particularly concerning for the application’s proposed corner lot, which is substantially smaller than the interior lots in the surrounding neighborhood. … The site is not physically suitable for the type and density of development proposed in the application.”

City staff further emphasized the impact a lack of “orderly and compatible” development could have on the neighborhood, noting that it could cause “environmental damage” such as public health, safety or welfare problems.

Up next

The city will likely now have to answer to Li and his representation through Monchamp Meldrum LLP, which sent Diaz a 42-page packet lobbying for passage of the subdivision May 28, the day of the council meeting. The legal team led with Li’s willingness to compromise on the conditions of approval for his project.

“On May 23, 2019, (Li) emailed the mayor to communicate that on the condition the city council reconsiders and approves the application, (he would be) willing to voluntarily agree to ... limit building height to one story for both (parcels), comply with neighborhood CC&R 40-foot setbacks from the street line for both (parcels) and the new home at parcel 2 will face Arroyo Road,” wrote Monchamp Meldrum LLP partner Paula Kirlin in the letter. “(Li) also stated he further agrees to a recorded deed restriction documenting the above requirements.”

Kirlin wrote that the requirements are “all above and beyond any requirements included in the city’s General Plan, Subdivision Code or Zoning Code, and are intended to address concerns regarding neighborhood compatibility expressed by neighbors and city council members.”

Kirlin referenced case law to allege the rationale behind the denial of Li’s application is “inconsistent and factually inaccurate.” She also claimed the record lacked evidence to support the findings required by the state’s Housing Accountability Act.

The HAA – enacted to ease California’s housing crisis by eliminating city policies that “limit the approval of housing, increase the cost of land for housing and require that high fees and exactions be paid by producers of housing” – applies to both below-market and market-rate residential units such as the property in question.

Li can appeal the city’s decision, at which time he and his attorneys will need to present their case in front of the city council. The most recent such appeal – involving Ted and Jerry Sorensen’s proposed 40 Main St. mixed-use project in April – was denied.

Li’s legal team could not be reached prior to the Town Crier’s press deadline. Hughmanick declined to comment.

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