Tuesday, September 29, 2009

CGF Comments on Palo Alto Foothills and maximum house size

(CGF sent the following letter to the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission regarding maximum house size in the foothills. -Brian)

September 22, 2009

Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission

Dear Members of the Planning Commission;

Yesterday, the City Council directed the Planning Commission to provide the City with options on house size limits for the foothills open space areas. The motion as expressed by Mayor Drekmeier was clear – they are not asking whether size limits would be a good idea, but rather stated they want size limits and they want the Commission to provide them with options. The Committee for Green Foothills submits this letter to provide some initial ideas that we hope might be useful for the Commission.

Intent and reasons for house size limits.
The Council discussion indicated that they view house size limits as a workable proxy for limiting a myriad of environmental impacts. Visibility is only one of those impacts. Climate impacts are another. In previous testimony, we pointed out that total area of wildfire defensible space perimeters increase with the size of monster mansion sizes, thereby increasing the amount of habitat modification that becomes necessary. Other impacts – traffic, safety, construction and maintenance, and use of toxics also tend to be inversely correlated with house size.

In addition, monster mansions do not fit the generally-accepted understanding of what a single family residence is. No one could reasonably claim that Buckingham Palace is a single family residence for an older couple, despite the fact that an older couple does reside there. Buckingham is a staffed structure, and so are the large structures that are modern monster mansions. While an occasional residential nanny can be found in normal-sized homes, their use and presence is incidental to the residence. Massive monster mansions are taken care of by staff, and much more often by live-in staff as compared to normal-sized residences. In other words, these structures are of a size that they commonly involve a different use than single family residences, and therefore are appropriately excluded.

Components of house size limits.
Several factors should be included in house size limits.

The size limit should be for all structures on the property. Applying the limit to one residence while allowing unlimited construction of other buildings will create a loophole that frustrates the intent of size limits. The house size limit - or if one prefers, a "structural size limit" – should simply be an upper ceiling on development in addition to the existing Floor-Area Ratio.

Size limits should be generous and should allow an additional bonus for exceeding environmental requirements. Choosing a number always involves drawing a bright line within a grey area, but that is inevitable. We suggest a bonus of an additional 2,000 square feet for structures that substantially exceed environmental requirements (understanding that this does not remove other requirement like meeting floor-area ratios). We suggest the following maximum size limits without a bonus and with a bonus (assuming all other requirements are also met):

• Lots less than 10 acres: 4,600 square feet total house/structural size limit. The 2,000 foot bonus would then equal 6,600 feet, a very large structure that is 10% larger than the R1 size limit.

• Lots of 10 acres or more, up to 15 acres: 5,600 square feet limit, with a 2,000 foot bonus allowing 7,600 feet.

• Lots of 15 acres or more: 6,600 square feet limit, with a 2,000 foot bonus allowing 8,600 feet.

Consider exemption of agricultural structures from size limits: agricultural structures support the open space uses of the foothills. The problem is that barns often turn into car garages or second residences. We welcome discussion of this issue to see if it can be exempted without a significant level of abuse.

Grandfather existing uses/structures: obviously, no teardowns should be required as the result of size limits. Limited modifications for existing structures that exceed size limits should be allowed, so long as no net increase in size occurs. Complete tear-down/rebuilds should conform to the size limits, however.

Request for notification.
The Committee for Green Foothills requests notification of any meetings or working groups that discuss this issue. We would be very interested in contributing to the discussion

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

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