Mora Drive neighbors fear dense development

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Developer Forrest Linebarger wants to build three homes on 1.6 acres on Mora Drive, a proposal that fails to conform with Los Altos Hills’ 1-acre minimum lot size.

Searching for a constructive critique, developer Forrest Linebarger invited his neighbors to an Aug. 6 meeting at Los Altos Hills Town Hall to review his proposed home designs for a site on Mora Drive.

Instead of accolades, Linebarger encountered a crowd of more than 20 residents frustrated by his obliviousness to the elephant in the room – an overall development proposal that violates town zoning laws for lot size and setbacks, as well as a sewer connection agreement that allows for only one connection on the property.

Linebarger wants to build three homes on 1.6 acres, a proposal that flies in the face of the town’s coveted 1-acre minimum lot size.

One resident even questioned whether Linebarger was using the meeting to “co-opt this group into some sort of sham.” Linebarger’s relationships with and his neighbors have remained tense after he was the only resident to resist the area’s annexation into the town last fall.

“We’re a really active group, and you don’t pull the wool over our eyes,” said Weegie Caughlan, a homeowner living near Mora Drive who shared her thoughts with the Town Crier after the meeting. “He’s not going to win.”

Root of the situation

Mora Drive is a quiet and bucolic street. The original tract of land, known as Jo Mora Ranch, was subdivided into 38 parcels in 1932. Despite some property-line shifts and lot expansion and division, the character of the area remains much like it was more than 90 years ago.

Linebarger purchased his property on Mora in 2006, as three lots with one assessor’s parcel number. Assessor’s parcel numbers are used to define property boundaries and identify lots. At the time, the 0.4-, 0.8- and 0.37-acre parcels were located in an unincorporated area of Santa Clara County, allowing Linebarger to secure certificates of compliance from the county to make them legal despite their substandard size.

When Linebarger’s property and 23 other parcels were annexed into Los Altos Hills last November, his parcels became nonconforming legal lots. Such lots are not uncommon. The town planning staff reports that there are 67 parcels smaller than 0.5 acres in Los Altos Hills – 31 of which remain undeveloped.

“There’s a real hodgepodge of them, and many of them will go away and become part of a conforming lot,” said Los Altos Hills Planning Commissioner Jim Abraham.

To Abraham’s recollection, efforts to develop substandard lots are “done with very little success.”

In an October 2012 staff report on the Mora Drive annexation, town staff noted that Linebarger would need to obtain Conditional Development Permits and setback variances for two of the three lots because of their size and width. In addition to facing possible conditions on the homes, staff added that “future development may require that the parcels are merged if they are contiguous and do not conform to standards for minimum parcel size.”

Securing town approval

The issue at hand for Linebarger is less about whether he is legally entitled to develop his property and more about whether developing three substandard lots side-by-side will meet the approval of the town.

“I love your homes,” said Rose Marie Nahm, another neighbor. “But this is a high-density project that doesn’t belong in our neighborhood.”

Most of Linebarger’s neighbors agree with Nahm’s assessment and note that the original subdivision plans for Jo Mora Ranch and subsequent property-line shifts were not intended to foster the type of housing that Linebarger is proposing.

But Linebarger dismisses the alternative of building one home on the site.

“I don’t really believe in megahousing,” he said. “We have lots of jobs and we need more housing.”

Neighbors began circulating a letter of protest last week, and 15 neighbors have already signed on.

Sewer-connection conundrum

Even if Linebarger submits his home designs to the town for approval, it is unclear whether he would be able to acquire three sewer connections for the three homes. At present, he’s only entitled to one, according to the terms of the San Antonio Hills Homeowners Association sewer agreement that the previous property owner signed in 2000.

“No additional permits to hook up to the Mora Drive sewer will be issued by Los Altos Hills under any circumstances … even if they involve the creation of any additional parcels,” said Los Altos Hills City Manager Carl Cahill in a 2006 letter to Linebarger.

Linebarger filed suit against the town earlier this year, arguing that by denying him sewer connections, he was unable to secure building permits from the county before annexation.

Enrique Klein, who lives just south of Linebarger, said there was good reason for the original sewer agreement.

“Let’s say the capacity of the sewer system is maxed out – people down the road might not have the right connection,” Klein said.

Amending the sewer agreement is not easy. It would require Linebarger to reach consensus with the owners of all 27 other properties signed onto the agreement.

Responding to community concerns, Linebarger noted that he would evaluate all of the input before submitting his plans to the town. Even with the controversy that foreshadows the process ahead, he said he remains optimistic that he can break ground in 2014.

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