Although Atherton City Council members acknowledge they won't meet their state-mandated housing goals with just accessory dwelling units, deciding where to put higher density units is still a point of contention.
During a special meeting last week, the council approved creating zoning overlays that would allow for more than just single-family housing on nine properties in town. All but one were passed with divided 3-2 votes, with some council members concerned that they haven't heard enough feedback from neighboring residents on the changes.
"Atherton residents need to have a voice if we're making a major change," said Mayor Rick DeGolia. In particular, he wanted to speak with neighbors of 97 Santiago Ave., an empty 1.43 acre field off Valparaiso Avenue that sold last month for $9.3 million located near Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton, according to Redfin.
"We have to go very slowly. ... The silver lining of trying this overlay of townhomes is I heard from many residents that they're interested in townhomes because they'd like to downsize," he said. "But I've heard from very few people that they want to see that in places other than the periphery of town."
The town is preparing its housing element for the 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle. The town must plan for the development of 348 new housing units, a large jump from its designation of 93 units during the 2014-22 cycle.
A May 23 town staff report notes that the State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has not approved housing elements that do not include some provision for multifamily housing.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis said she doesn't want Atherton, which has a population of about 7,000, to turn into a "larger high density city" like nearby Menlo Park and Redwood City.
Below are the four locations where zoning overlays were considered and approved by a majority of the Town Council.
• The property at 23 Oakwood Blvd., approximately 1.52 acres which borders Redwood City, was set at 16 units per acre. It passed 3-1-1, with DeGolia voting no and Vice Mayor Bill Widmer abstaining.
• The property at 97 Santiago Ave., approximately 1.42 acres, was set at 6 units per acre. 3-2, with Lewis and DeGolia opposed.
• The property at 170 Atherton Ave. in West Atherton, which is about 4 acres, was set at eight units per acre. Three council members voted yes, while DeGolia and Councilwoman Diana Hawkins-Manuelian abstained from voting.
• The property at 290 Polhemus Ave. near Alameda de Las Pulgas and Stockbridge Avenue, is approximately 5 acres, was set at eight units per acre. The overlay was approved unanimously.
The council had already directed staff to include five properties that front along Bay Road as part of the overlay zoning. The density for these properties, just under an acre each, was set at six units per acre.
The town is aware of property owners at 170 Atherton Ave. and 23 Oakwood Blvd. are interested in proposing higher density development, according to a May 26 town newsletter. The remaining property owners have not expressed interest in creating higher density development; but, the overlay provides the opportunity for it in the future, the newsletter.
Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders noted that the town can take public comment on a draft housing element, then adjust where it plans for townhouses based on that.
Atherton town staff and council members also discussed other ways to build more housing beyond just townhouses.
Residents have started taking out applications to split their lots and build duplexes in town, made possible by Senate Bill 9, which took effect this year. This will help the town reach its housing goals, but not be enough to meet housing mandates without planning for higher density.
Costa Sanders told the council that if the Menlo Park Fire Protection District decides to build dorms for its firefighters at Station 3, 32 Almendral Ave. in Atherton, it will not count toward the housing stock.
Hawkins-Manuelian said it would be wise to change town rules so residents can build ADUs above their garages. And at some point the town might have to account for ADUs being rented out, she said, in order for them to actually count towards housing stock.
Menlo College is looking to add faculty housing at the corner of Alejandra Avenue and El Camino Real, along with some housing potentially in a building that needs to be replaced at the center of campus, Costa Sanders said. The town expects about 34 units of housing to be added on school campuses this housing cycle, she noted.
Widmer said families moving into new developments in Menlo Park (a project at the former home of SRI International and the Greenheart complex in downtown) will increase enrollment in the Menlo Park City School District. He wondered if there could be a need for the district to include apartments on the top floor of any new buildings it constructs for a growing population. Lewis said that while it is a good idea, Encinal School is already landlocked and probably couldn't grow.
The council will vote on the draft housing element during a special meeting in July. The final housing element must be completed by January 2023.