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Woodside: Residents seek right to build larger homes

Woodside Heights, though within the borders of Woodside, is a community apart: It sits east of Interstate 280 and it is adjacent to West Atherton, where market values tend to be higher by comparison. The landscaping resembles that of West Atherton: The homes are somewhat hidden from the street by the trunks and foliage of large heritage trees.

Unlike Atherton, the floor area of primary houses in Woodside Heights is limited to 4,000 square feet. And there's the rub, as recently presented in a 14-page proposal to the Woodside Town Council.

Residents of Woodside Heights, represented by Greg Smith of Eleanor Drive, asked the council on May 13 to amend the zoning of their properties.

The proposal, "Woodside Heights: Rethinking Our Zoning," asks the council and town government to change the municipal code by taking 1,500 of the 15,000 square feet of permitted floor area on a one-acre lot and reallocating it to primary houses. Such a change would allow a primary house a maximum of 5,500 square feet. The proposal requests that this be done in three months' time.

Council members were sympathetic to the residents' request, but reluctant to move as quickly or as significantly as requested. The chief concerns: a 37 percent increase in house size, and the unintended consequences -- including a domino effect -- if such a change were done without sufficient analysis of the impact on other neighborhoods.

Mr. Smith didn't buy it. "The council should not stop our proposal to pursue a hypothetical question," he said.

Eleanor Drive resident Bill Perrine said that "literally everybody that I've talked to has basically been in favor of it. It isn't that much of a change." The residents' proposal includes a survey showing 95 percent support within the homeowners association.

"I just want something that fits in the neighborhood and fits my family," said Elizabeth Bellock, also of Eleanor Drive; she added that the change might make the area more attractive to younger families.

Councilwoman Ann Kasten, whose council district includes Woodside Heights, supported the proposal, in part because it might discourage clusters -- primary houses and accessory structures. "To me, that's not rural. It's low end," she said. The town's design-review process is "pretty good" at managing what houses look like, she said, but added: "I understand the argument that if you do this, you open the door."

Fifteen hundred square feet is too much, said Councilman Dave Tanner. But with more people working from home, "I understand the need for more square footage," he added. "There's a certain balance that we must have. ... I think it needs to be studied, and I'm willing to take the time out to do that."

Councilman Tom Shanahan said he was concerned that larger homes would attract larger families and wondered about the effect, not over five years but over 50 years. "Any property that increases population density is not going to get my support," he said.

Councilman Ron Romines called the proposal "well-considered," but said that he was not persuaded. The change has majority support among residents there, the area is geographically isolated from much of Woodside, and it shares a border with Atherton, but "I don't find that terribly persuasive," he said. "It doesn't mean we adopt the standards of the other town. ... We have much different standards than Atherton."

Atherton as yardstick

Atherton is kind of a standard in Woodside (and Portola Valley) in that when it is mentioned in public, it is usually to point out something undesired, such as solid perimeter walls, imperial-looking gates and other visible indicators of great wealth. But in the Woodside Heights proposal, in a list of unattributed complaints under the title "Our Frustration," that view is not found:

"We sold our house there and moved to Atherton where they don't have that 'crazy zoning.'"

"Why are they building so many beautiful homes in Atherton and not here? Rural doesn't mean run down."

"The town is too difficult to deal with. Why don't we annex our neighborhood to Atherton? We have more in common with them."

Marilyn Voelke, chair of Woodside's Planning Commission, described the Atherton comparisons as "alarming" during the public comment period. The domino effect from this proposal would create an "Atherton" effect as it moved through town, she said.

Resident Tom Broderick said he agreed. "It's a very thin line between what we have today and big boxy houses." Atherton would allow a 20,000-square-foot monolith that three people would live in, "like an (Egyptian) pyramid," he said. "It seems to me that (Atherton) has absolutely no code whatsoever."

"We need to be prudent," said Councilman Peter Mason, "and we need to look at all the unintended consequences. The last thing I think we want is mini-Athertons."

Deep-sixed?

With a recognition of the urgency felt by Woodside Heights residents, the council added the issue to Town Hall's work plan a list of priorities that is reviewed periodically.

Residential development priorities, noted Mayor Dave Burow, include resource conservation, energy efficiency and the primacy of the land's natural state, all factors that are better addressed in one structure than a cluster. The current proposal, while in need of tweaking, "seems very logical to me," he said. "It's very safe to say we'll get through this item no later than the next fiscal year. It could be sooner than that."

"I just want to make sure I understand," Mr. Smith said at one point. "You guys have deep-sixed this, and if we go ahead and file an application (with the Planning Commission) as we're entitled to, you will not approve that until you have finished your other survey work."

"We're not deep-sixing it," said Mr. Tanner. "We're putting it on a work plan. We have a lot of work to do. It's not going to be deep-sixed. It's going to be looked at and studied. It's not deep-sixed, it's not shelved, it's not thrown away. It's being acted upon. That's what we did just now. But we can't tell you we're going to do it in two weeks, we can't tell you we're going to do it in two months. We have to study it and find out."

Mr. Smith replied: "I think you've managed to translate ... a relatively simple change into a quagmire of endless debate. ... You have, actually, no time frame or a deliverable, nor have you articulated any specific standards by which you are being held to respond to our very specific request."

"In its present form," Mr. Burow said, "if it was put before the council tonight, it would not pass."

Mr. Shanahan weighed in. "I'm not very excited about being interrogated about my time frame. I'll tell you what. There are a lot of priorities in this town and I think you've heard me be very clear: I don't rate yours very highly at all."

"Got it," Mr. Smith replied.

"We're doing the best that we can," Mr. Shanahan said. "Right now, you just don't have the votes on this council to do what you want to do."

"There you have it," Mr. Smith replied.

"And I don't think that your priorities are particularly high," Mr. Shanahan added. "Now obviously, Anne Kasten disagrees, but you see, you've got some disagreement here. This is not going to happen fast because there is opposition.

Comments

Posted by Bob, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on May 29, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Particularly amusing (not really) was the suggestion from Shanahan that having a larger primary residence would increase the number of occupants per parcel as compared to having two secondary buildings such as guest houses or pool houses that could be occupied separately. It seems VERY likely that separate rentable buildings will result in more total residents than somewhat larger main houses would attract larger families.


Posted by Hypocrite, a resident of Woodside School
on May 29, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Councilman Shanahan frequently professes libertarian views. His position on this issue is totally inconsistent with those beliefs. He wishes to use planning and zoning regulations to control family size in Woodside. Shame on you Councilman for imposing governmental control on the most basic of family decisions. It is time for you to get off your high horse, and admit that you hold a highly hypocritical viewpoint on this issue.


Posted by Jon Castor, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on May 29, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Jon Castor is a registered user.

The proposal from residents living in Woodside Heights doesn't seek to change the fundamental character of this lovely neighborhood. I hope the promised study and a second look produces a better result for us.


Posted by johngslater, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 29, 2014 at 5:52 pm

I don't object to people living in 5500' homes, I am just very surprised that 95% of the people living in homes of only 4000' feel constrained by their home's size.


Posted by Menlo Voter, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 29, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

"I am just very surprised that 95% of the people living in homes of only 4000' feel constrained by their home's size."

A first world problem if I've heard one.


Posted by WS stranglehold, a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on May 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Cluster structures are absolutely more likely to attract more multi-family use
How else might a town like WS, PV or Atherton address it's housing element or make way for more affordable housing though? NIMBY to be sure.

Aside from the aesthetics of the structure, I've never understood why a planning commission has SO much power over the homeowners who are paying so much in taxes anyway. Won't a +1500sf addition only add to that tax revenue? And might the leveling of the code lead to more "investment" in an otherwise somewhat undervalued neighborhood? (by comparison) Atherton may be extravagant but they are consistently attracting investment and creating jobs by re-creating their neighborhoods and that benefits the entire region.


Posted by Former Los Lomitas Parent, a resident of Atherton: other
on May 30, 2014 at 2:15 pm

We lived in Woodside Heights for many years and loved the neighborhood and our neighbors. The one thing we didn't love was the crazy zoning laws or the imperious nature of the town council. We have since moved to Atherton where we are very happy. Population density? Really? Does anyone really think that this change would meaninfully impact the population density in the neighborhood? Woodside Heights probably has 75 homes in an area roughly equivalent to the size of downtown Menlo Park. If this change added an aggregate of more than a handful of residents I'd be shocked. Good for Greg for pushing this. Wish him the best.


Posted by Long time Woodside resident, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on May 30, 2014 at 4:09 pm

In reply to johngslater and Menlo Voter's comments, we do live in a very "well developed" part of the world. I suspect that most Woodside residents don't feel constrained by living in a 4000 sq ft home, having just downsized to one that is less than half of my previous Woodside home. I would like the freedom of choice to develop my property and allocate buildable space so that it benefits my lifestyle and enhances property value. This does not mean to over develop the land but do it in a responsible way that takes into consideration the natural beauty of the rural landscape. These protections are still provided by the ASRB process, which can also be improved. The proposal does not allow for houses as large as in Atherton or as densely populated as Menlo Park. Overall it seems to be very well thought out. I think we need to look at what residents want taking into account the overall good of the community.


Posted by Long time Woodsider, a resident of Woodside School
on May 30, 2014 at 10:32 pm

The last thing Woodside needs is bigger houses. The limits already allow houses much bigger than the stated size limits because basement space does not count at all, and a second story counts less than full-size if it has side walls below a certain height, which is quite easy to do. Meaning, you can already build at least a 10,000 square foot house in Woodside on a lot allowing "4,000" square feet. It is not possible that anything larger could be needed. If you want a bigger house move to somewhere that welcomes them - Atherton and Los Altos Hills come to mind. Please don't ruin Woodside by making more like places that many of us couldn't be paid to live in. "Rural" is not a more than 10,000 square foot home.


Posted by pogo, a resident of Woodside: other
on May 31, 2014 at 7:34 am

pogo is a registered user.

Sorry, Long Time Woodsider, you are factually incorrect. You cannot build a 10,000 square foot home in Woodside (you could have in the past, not any more). You should read the building codes for our town.

Using all of the factors in floor area calculations, the largest "single structure" home you could build today is a little over 6,000 square feet. That's not tiny, but it's not the 10,000 square feet you suggested. And depending upon the size of your property, you can build one or more additional 1,500 square foot "accessory living structures," but those are not considered the main residence.


Posted by Long time Woodsider, a resident of Woodside School
on Jun 1, 2014 at 10:14 pm

@Pogo, I love it when people just state things as facts with no proof. The Woodside Municipal Code Chapter XV, 153.047 (Web Link) states that on a "conforming lot" a 6,000 square foot home is allowed. With an "exception," which is almost always granted, this can be increased to 8,000 square feet. Basements do not count in the square footage (also right there in the code) so that doubles the size allowed right there. A second story measurement is based on plate height. It is rather complicated, but basically if a side wall is less than 11 feet tall a square foot counts as less than a square foot. So a second floor with side walls of only five feet counts as only half its square footage. I think we're up to 20,000 square feet, and that's without the funny exception written in to allow up to 600 square feet to have side walls of up to 16 feet be only counted as one-story. If you have a knowledgeable architect you can build a house big enough to hold a the biggest ego around right in Woodside. Ask Larry Ellison.


Posted by Long time Woodsider, a resident of Woodside School
on Jun 2, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Whoops - I realize I made a mistake in those calculations. Where allowed an 8,000 square foot home (which I would guess is more than half of Woodside) you could have a two-story home with a basement, with each level 5,000 square feet. The basement doesn't count, the first floor is 5,000 and the second story with 5-foot sidewalls counts as 2,500. So there you have a 15,000 square foot that the town counts as only 7,500 square feet. The reasoning behind these rules, if I remember correctly, is that people don't like the appearance of a massive home, so what you don't see can't hurt you.


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