Wednesday, August 30, 2006

County enacts viewshed protection in a win for the Measure A Campaign

Yesterday, Santa Clara County enacted improved viewshed protection for hillside development (Agenda Item 66) in the County, limiting the aesthetic impact from new development and giving people incentives to construct smaller, less intrusive homes.

CGF asked for even stronger protections which were not granted, but developers' efforts to weaken the protections also were rejected. Overall, I would describe this both as a significant improvement and a first victory for the Measure A campaign, the Land Conservation Initiative.

Relatively few opponents of the County viewshed proposal tried to kill it, but rather most of them only sought to weaken it. If we had not been bringing our Measure A, there's little doubt that the realtors and developers would have tried to kill viewshed protection entirely. Because they had to act "reasonably", our Measure A campaign defused a great deal of potential opposition to the County's action yesterday.

Our comment letter is reposted below.

August 25, 2006

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

Re: Agenda Item #66, Viewshed Protection

Dear Members of the Board of Supervisors

The Committee for Green Foothills continues its ongoing support for improvements to County viewshed protection, which include proposals suggested by County Supervisors for nearly two years. While interest in improving the viewshed protection extends even longer than two years, the Committee was involved in the recent catalyst for this effort, a proposal to place a 25,000 square-foot monster mansion on a hilltop ridgeline. We are very glad to see the effort to improve rules make so much progress.

The Committee generally supports County staff’s viewshed protection proposal. We support the proposal both on its own merit and as something that complements the more general protection we hope to achieve through the Land Conservation Initiative on the fall ballot. We note that Initiative opponents have stated they also support the viewshed process and proposal, and we hope they will not seek to remove the most important portions of the viewshed proposal.

Rather than remove vital parts of the proposal, the Committee seeks to see it strengthened. In particular, we suggest the following:

· House size levels for design review should be better adjusted to reflect the problems that monster mansions pose for viewshed protection. As proposed, a 4,900 square-foot structure would not get Tier 2 review and no incentive in the rules to reduce its size. The 12,500 square-foot limit for Tier 3 is similarly too high to create a significant disincentive. We suggest the transition from Tier 1 to Tier 2 occur at 4,000 square feet, and from Tier 2 to Tier 3 occur at 10,000 square feet.

We understand that staff based the Tier 2 transition on the current typical house of 5,000 square feet in the hillsides, but if the goal is to fix an existing problem, some incentive should be given for people to choose less massive housing. Similarly, the problem of a “monster mansion” arises at a much smaller level than 12,500 square feet, and the tiering system should address that problem through appropriate incentives, including transitioning to Tier 3 at 10,000 square feet.

· The alternative proposals for ridgeline development, General Plan Policies RGD31a through 33a, should be adopted. These proposals achieve what the Board of Supervisors want – get development off of ridgelines unless no other choice presents itself, while protecting private property rights. We strongly encourage the Board to adopt these proposals and direct staff to prepare the appropriate zoning ordinances.

In addition, the Committee recommends that the 18-24 month review period include considering improvements to the proposal that would protect the viewshed for County residents who are not located in the County valley floor. These people also have the right to quality views. In particular, the review should consider the following:

· Extending viewshed protection to areas heavily used by many County residents – Highway 280, Highway 152, Highway 17, and parts of selected County parks.

· Improving lighting control ordinances to decrease light pollution and improve access to night sky views, something the County could do in conjunction with city jurisdictions.

· Review air quality protections to reduce haze in the County.

We applaud the County’s efforts, and look forward to protecting viewsheds. Please contact us with any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

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