After lawsuit threat, LA council reconsiders vote against splitting 831 Arroyo Road

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A notice posted in the branches of a tree in front of 831 Arroyo Road informs neighbors that the Los Altos City Council will again consider a subdivision of the lot.

The Los Altos City Council was scheduled Tuesday – after the Town Crier’s press deadline – to either adopt or deny a resolution allowing 831 Arroyo Road to be split into two parcels. 

If the council voted to approve the subdivision request, the city would only pay for the legal fees accrued since property owner Ying-Min Li’s development company, GoldSilverIsland Homes LLC, filed a complaint with the city last August. If the council denied the request, the settlement would be null and void, putting the city at risk of having to pay even more.

At the Feb. 11 council meeting, Mayor Jan Pepper reopened the possibility of subdividing the Montebello Acres lot. City staff recommended that the council approve the subdivision, reasoning that both the interior and corner lots involved in the proposal would comply with the neighborhood’s designated R1-10 Zone District. Prior to the council’s official May 2019 denial of the subdivision, the Planning Commission agreed with city staff, finding the width, depth and other elements of both lots to be consistent with the Los Altos General Plan and other site development standards.

Discussions met with dissent

The proposed subdivision of 831 Arroyo Road met with opposition from neighbors at every step. When the Planning Commission discussed the project Feb. 7, 2019, six residents spoke in person and more than 20 sent letters urging the commission to reject the request to turn one lot into two. Neighbors on Arroyo Road worried that the two smaller lots would be incompatible with the feel of their street, composed of single-family homes with setbacks of up to 46 feet, according to a tentative map provided by city staff for the council’s Feb. 25 meeting.

However, city staff and commissioners argued that allowing a 25-foot setback for both lots fit with the road at intersections with Arroyo, including Mountain View Avenue, which has setbacks averaging 25-30 feet. Still, residents shared other concerns, including the belief that orienting one or both lots toward Mountain View Avenue would change the feel of their neighborhood.

The Planning Commission’s vote was unanimous, but when dozens of Montebello Acres homeowners showed up at the council’s hearings on the project, the pushback created a divided council. Worries over the transfer of conditions, covenants and restrictions (CC&Rs) that all buyers accept upon purchase of a home in the neighborhood deterred Pepper and councilwomen Lynette Lee Eng and Anita Enander from voting in favor of the subdivision. City Manager Chris Jordan pointed out in an email obtained through a public records request that CC&Rs are maintained by homeowners associations, not the city.

“We cannot enforce CC&Rs that stipulate certain regulations or behaviors that do not exist in city code,” Jordan wrote to Nancy Ellickson, a Montebello Acres resident who serves on the city’s Public Arts Commission.

Jordan added that he understood it was “awkward to enforce CC&Rs on each other, or police each other” – wording Ellickson had used in an email explaining neighbors’ frustrations with city planning.

After the council’s initial denial of the subdivision proposal May 14, Li’s legal representation sent a 42-page memo detailing his request and recounting the efforts he made to work with the city. Attorneys specifically addressed the concerns of neighbors and city officials.

“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, attached to the agenda for the May 28 meeting at which the council issued its final denial.

Other examples of changed setbacks

When it comes to setbacks – the space between the lot line and the structure placed on a property – no single number defines the standard setback for Montebello Acres.

The Town Crier’s records request revealed an April 2019 email to Ellickson from then-Planning Services Manager Zach Dahl in which he pointed out that other homeowners had applied to amend their setbacks to achieve development goals and received approval from the city’s Design Review Commission.

Dahl cited a “recent” one-story application at 809 Arroyo Road that city staff first denied because the bulk of the house had a front yard setback of 30 feet. The homeowner appealed the decision to the Design Review Commission, and all eight neighbors who spoke or wrote on the proposal supported the homeowner, according to Dahl. The commission overturned the denial, and the project was approved.

Dahl also mentioned a proposal to add an accessory dwelling unit at 766 Arroyo Road, which went before the Design Review Commission when ADUs still required approval from that commission. The project included a garage addition with a 25-foot setback; no neighborhood opposition was recorded.

Ellickson asked whether the city was required through its Residential Design Guidelines to “protect the consistent character neighborhood,” one of three categories a city region can be assigned in the guidelines. Dahl argued that Arroyo Road meets the criterion of a “diverse or transitional” neighborhood, not a “consistent character” neighborhood.

“Arroyo Road contains a variety of architectural styles, massing, scales and exterior materials,” Dahl told Ellickson after Jordan forwarded her query. “So, aside from the increased front-yard setback (which isn’t uniformly at 40 feet), there really aren’t many other characteristics that would qualify Arroyo Road as a consistent character neighborhood.”

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