The Los Altos City Council last week voted to settle a lawsuit by agreeing to subdivide a residential lot and directed city staff to advance to the bidding stage on the new Emergency Operations Center.
With Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng dissenting, the council followed city staff’s recommendation to split the property at 831 Arroyo Road into one corner and one exterior lot. The action reverses a motion made approximately a year ago, when the council voted 3-2 to deny the subdivision request from GoldSilverIsland Homes LLC’s Ying-Min Li.
Following the denial, Li filed a lawsuit against the city, citing his work to accommodate the concerns of Montebello Acres residents, who protested that the subdivision would negatively impact their neighborhood’s character.
After months of mediation, the council’s Feb. 25 decision means litigation is officially over; the city of Los Altos will pay for legal fees accrued since the suit was filed in August.
The council did not follow city staff’s recommendation, however, when it came to planning for the new Emergency Operations Center. Staff recommended delaying the project in order to consider rethinking the city’s police department facility along with the EOC, since the design team has also been developing a plan to install a new HVAC system for the police station. Captain Katie Krauss told council her agency would rather deal with portable heaters and cooling fans for a while longer so that a completed concept for a station that would serve its employees better could be sketched up and executed simultaneously. While council members said they understood the city’s police station is in dire need of renovation or a total overhaul, they were concerned about delays surrounding the current, dilapidated Emergency Operations Center, housed at the Municipal Services Center, approximately 2.5 miles from the civic center.
An analysis of the center’s needs will take at least six months, according to consultants city staff approached about the project. Allowing Jeff Katz Architects to finish its design and get the project out to bid should be the priority, council members agreed, considering the aging structure and infrastructure, outdated technology and the threat of climate change.
Preservation versus compliance
According to Matt Francois, the land-use attorney for GoldSilverIsland Homes, Li’s proposal to subdivide his 831 Arroyo Road property met all objective city requirements, and exceeded them by offering to change the orientation of the second parcel to face Arroyo Road and adding 5 feet to the setback mandated by the city’s zoning code. Both of the concessions resulted from conversations with neighbors, who had circulated a petition protesting the project signed by more than 80 Montebello Acres residents.
Before the council denied his proposal, Li offered to alter his application further by agreeing to construct single-story homes on the parcels. But Francois said the compromises Li made had been taken off the table for “the simple reason that that was then and this is now.”
“There’s another process through which neighborhood compatibility can be judged,” Francois said, referencing the Los Altos Design Review Commission. “We know that neighbors and commissioners will review our plans.”
As she voted to approve the subdivision, Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins reminded the Montebello Acres residents who attended the meeting that Li’s compromises were outlined in a letter last May, and when Councilwoman Jan Pepper, who is now mayor, asked if the neighbors would accept them, they said no. During public comment, 30-plus-year resident Susan Flesher explained why compromise concerns her and her neighbors.
“Consider the precedent this sets, not just for Montebello Acres, but for Los Altos as a whole,” Flesher said. “By compromising, we are losing sight. … This neighborhood has not backed off, and we value the council’s support.”
By the end of the conversation, Pepper referred to the council’s decision to reverse itself as “really the only approach we can take.”
Now that Li can proceed with the subdivision, his team will develop plans and deliver them to the Design Review Commission for the next phase.
One thing at a time
Administrative services director Sharif Etman called the design for the city’s new Emergency Operations Center, set to be located behind the police station, “smaller than what (the city) actually needs, in this scenario.”
Still, due to the current center’s age and fears for the city’s ability to respond to emergencies without updated technology, the council opted not to delay the project’s design phase, enabling the city to seek bids as soon as possible. Prioritizing the new Emergency Operations Center means requests from the city’s police department and the Santa Clara County Fire Department to replace the Almond Avenue and Loyola fire stations will be considered at a later date.
Art Whipple, a resident involved with the city’s amateur radio emergency service, called the current Emergency Operations Center setup “not a good situation.” He noted that local ham radio operators conduct routine drills to test the service and regularly perform major drills that assume the center will be “blown down” and unavailable during an emergency.
Harry Guy, a self-described “resident volunteer,” said the current technology is vulnerable.
“I’m a huge supporter of the (police) and what they do, and I recognize and accept the police building needs to be, in my opinion, torn down and replaced,” Guy said. “But if you delay this project and keep bumping it down the road, you’ll end up in a bond measure.”
Council members were not eager to push a bond measure to fund the Emergency Operations Center or other public safety buildings because Pepper felt it was a risk uncalculated. According to Bruins, research should be done first to determine “what people have an appetite for.” Down the road, city staff will explore organizing a poll to determine how much money, if any, local residents would support directing toward the efforts.