Letter to Palo Alto regarding house size limits in the foothills

February 18, 2010

Curtis Williams

City of Palo Alto

Dear Curtis;

The Committee for Green Foothills makes the following suggestions regarding house size limitations, following up on our letter of September 22 from last year and later discussions.

Direction from City Council.   The Council directed the Planning and Transportation Commission to provide the Council with options on house size limits.  They did not request the recommendations focus on whether size limits should be placed, but rather to give them limit options.  Accordingly, recommendations that focused primarily on whether limits should be placed and only secondarily on what limits should be placed would contradict Council direction.  Individuals and groups that for their own part oppose any limits are free to predominantly emphasize that point on their own if they wish.

Limits should provide a range of options.  The Council sent the issue back to the Planning Commission when the Council was considering whether to enact staff’s (non-preferred) alternative recommendations of limits of 8,000 to 12,000 square feet depending on parcel size.  Returning to the City Council with those same proposed limits is not providing a range of options any greater than what they had in front of them in September.  A better planning process should give the Council its requested range of options, with differing reasons for choosing differing options, and a preferred recommendation from the Planning Commission and possibly another from staff.

An option to limit all/most structures on the parcel should be included for consideration.  House size limits that applied only to a main structure could be evaded, partially but not completely, by increasing the size of accessory structures.  This issue should be explained to the City Council, with options given as to how to handle the issue.  The options are:  1. ignore it, on the reasoning that only limited amount of bulk could be added to other structures as a practical matter;  2. cover all structures with a total floor limit to eliminate the potential evasion, recognizing that the floor limit for some parcels may be more restrictive than Floor-Area ratios; or 3. blend the two concepts with separate limits on accessory structures, particularly on second residences.   The Committee for Green Foothills favors option 2, with exceptions for agriculture-related structures where agriculture is practiced.

Recommendations should describe reasons for house size limits.  The Council’s initial direction to provide limit options should be fleshed out by staff and the Planning Commission to include reasons for doing so.  Staff has mentioned several possibilities in the February 12 email from Clare Campbell.  We support those recommendations, and additionally suggest the following be presented to the City Council as it reasons it could choose to either include or reject as reasons to limit size:


·         No longer fits the category of a single family residence.  This would recognize that a designation of a single family home is not infinitely flexible when it comes to size.  As a practical matter, structures over a certain size will usually be staffed either full time or part time, and not occupied by a single family.

·         House size is a proxy for multiple environmental factors.  Energy use, carbon footprint, direct and indirect disturbance to natural environments, demand for emergency services, construction impacts, traffic, water use, and other effects all tend to increase with building size.  A theoretical effort to limit each impact separately would be too cumbersome, possibly more restrictive in certain aspects that size limits, and still fail to control some environmental effects.  This seems to coincide somewhat with the staff reasoning in the February 12 email, but attempts to spell out the proxy function more broadly.

·         Reasonable accommodation to homeowner interests.  A size limit would be chosen that would be sufficient to accommodate a large family, guests, and occasional large parties.  The limit would allow a very high quality of life and enable landowners to add significantly to the economic value of their parcel compared to a small residence.

·         Equity.  House size limit in the R1 Districts is 6,000 square feet.  While those parcels are much smaller than foothill parcels, floor-area ratios are not the only reason for house size limits.  If they were, FAR could substitute entirely for house size limits.  The City may instead determine that 6,000 square feet constitutes the limit of what can still be fairly described as a single-family residence, that other reasons described above justify the 6,000 foot limit, and that it should be applied equally throughout Palo Alto.

Suggested range of options and preferred alternative.  Given all the above, Committee for Green Foothills recommends that staff and the Planning Commission provide the following range of options for house size limits:

1.                Simple Equity with Flatlands.  This proposal would assume the same size limits should apply in the foothills as in the flatlands:  6,000 square feet.

2.               Modified Expanded Limits, with Incentives.  This is the proposal that we submitted last September.  Let owners have larger homes than in the flatlands and larger still in the bigger parcels.  Set upper limits based on the assumption that owners will use an incentive system for “green” building construction.  We suggest 4,600 feet limit with a 2,000 foot expanded limit for green building on 10 acres or less; a 5,600 limit with 2,000 foot green building bonus on 15 acres or less; and 6,600 limit with 2,000 foot bonus on more than 15 acres.

3.               Staff proposal.  The staff proposal was an 8,000 foot limit for 10 acres or less; 10,000 feet for 15 acres or less; and 12,000 feet for more than 15 acres.  We will leave to staff to describe how limits as high as these serve any of the reasons for limiting house size.

We recommend Option 2 above, so that house size limits range from 6,600 feet to 8,600 feet in the foothills if owners make use of green building incentives.  Even the strictest limits would still be ten percent larger than the R1 district.  We recommend the limit be applied to all non-agricultural structures.  Alternatively, we recommend that any limit the City Council chooses consist of an upper limit if the applicant meets certain green building standards above minimum required standards, and a lower limit if the applicant only meets minimum standards.

Recommendation for alternative compliance to intention behind house size limits.  While we believe it would be too difficult to develop broad regulatory standards that control every environmental impact regulated by house size, it may be helpful to give applicants an alternative:  allow them to submit an application that does not meet the size limits for their parcel but in every aspect they can describe, exceeds the environmental performance that could be achieved through size limits.  The proposal would be approved or denied by a discretionary decision of a body like the Planning Commission.  The idea is that an exceptional proposal for environmental quality might give a better outcome for the applicant and the community.

Recommendations for issues raised by some landowners.  In the course of various meetings, some landowners have raised environmental issues that deserve recognition and further attention by the City:

      Basement issues in the rest of the City.  If basements are causing environmental problems elsewhere, they should also be addressed in the other parts of the City as well, and not just the foothills.

      Light pollution of the night sky.  Anything that reduces light pollution in the night sky would benefit people throughout the City.  In addition to better regulation to cut off direct lighting from leaving people’s property, Palo Alto could emulate the computer-controlled streetlight demonstration study by San Jose.  “Smart” LED lights can be programmed to be less bright later in the night after most traffic has cleared from streets, so less light pollution from the flatland would reach up into the foothills, and everyone could see the stars.  Dark sky benefits to wildlife and people have also been documented in studies.  More information about the San Jose project is at http://sanjoseca.gov/transportation/streetlightdemo.asp.


      Fencing that impedes wildlife movement.  One landowner stated that high fences in the foothills are impeding wildlife movement.  Committee for Green Foothills is aware of this issue in other jurisdictions.  It could be worth further investigation in Palo Alto.

We believe the recommendations above will help move the City forward, and follow the letter and spirit of City Council direction.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt

Legislative Advocate, Santa ClaraCounty

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