At its Tuesday Jan. 13 meeting, the city council may approve (by consent) a pilot program to try out some new ways to be more “transparent,” far exceeding the piddling requirements of the Brown Act. Since the council’s September 2014 study session on the topic, the Los Altos City government has been “experimentally” posting council meeting AGENDAS and materials 8 DAYS BEFORE, rather than a merely 3 business days before the Tuesday council meeting. That experiment will continue in the pilot program.
Further new transparency enhancements include: 1) The Los Altos Town Crier has agreed to publish the agenda of the upcoming council agenda; 2) Staff responses to pre-meeting questions will be posted on the website; 3) Requests for and status of public record requests along with the requestor’s name will be posted on the website; 3) The city website will maintain an index (list) of public records and their retention period, 4) All public meetings of council, commissions and committees will be at minimum audiotaped, retaining these audio records permanently. [ Meetings of the City Council and the Planning and Transportation Commission which are held in Chambers are already being video recorded. ]
Lalahpolitico: Can the audio only meetings be “taped” on a digital mp4 recorder and then uploaded to Soundcloud or possibly to the city website?
Enhance Property Change Notifications for Neighbors
Also new in the pilot program…the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Design Commission will review the public noticing requirements for commercial and residential property changes. At prior meetings, some council members had suggested that residents and owners within 1000 feet should be notified of potentially all project plan filings. Right now only those within 500 feet are noticed… and only for “major” property changes.
Lalahpolitico: Certainly the city needs to make it easier for property owners and residents to know what their neighbors are planning. Not all neighbors are all that neighborly with each other; 10 percent of Los Altos houses are rented.
Here’s My Sob Story about No Notification
My adjacent neighboring home owner – who “temporarily” moved to Australia – rented out his house for four years. Again one fall, the current tenant family moved out. A couple of weeks later, I spied a man sitting in a pickup truck in the house’s driveway, a man who I assumed was the rental property maintenance manager. Was not! When I struck up a conversation, he explained that he was a construction contractor. Then he stunned me by showing me the CITY APPROVED PLANS (blueprints) for a brand new one story next-door, TWICE the size of the original.
I went to Los Altos City Hall and building department to find out why I had not been noticed. They told me the plan was classified as a “minor remodel,” not a new home. The permit asked for no variances and totally conformed to one-story home requirements. Yet the demolition was TOTAL except for the existing foundation, some subfloor and the brick fireplace. Thus, 2000 square feet of the new 3999 square foot building was placed on the existing foundation and some of the old subfloor. Only 1999 square feet were totally new and on brand new foundation. So according to city ordinances the project was 50.1% a rebuild, hence “a minor remodel” not covered by the noticing requirements ordinances. (To the layperson the house is 97% brand new.)
The annoying banging of the meticulous construction crew lasted for over a year. Did you know contractors can legally start the workday at 7 am, not 8 am like gardeners with their leaf blowers? If I had known this project was on my calendar, I might have planned a very long, round-the-world trip or taken other evasive action. Imagine how terrible it would be for a family who was expecting to host a wedding or graduation event in their backyard to discover the the neighbor was just about to embark on a demolition. I guess you could beg them to skip working that one day.
How does my story end? The neighbor, a corporate lawyer, never once visited from Australia to inspect the work in progress on “his” new home, and in fact, he never returned at all. The project architect is also a local developer/realtor. When the project was finished, the stylish, brand new home was put up for sale by the architect’s realty firm. Pretty slick, eh?
So how to Enhance Permit Application Notifications? Outsource…
Lalahpolitico thinks the definition of “minor remodel” does need to be expanded in some kind of an ordinance. Also, building and landscape projects – no matter how small and low budget – that may cause an increase in light, noise or shade pollution for neighbors should be DISCOVERABLE so neighbor concerns may be addressed.
But as Council Member Megan Satterlee has suggested, “There is no need for city staff to mail letters to people who live 1000 feet away about my bathroom remodel!”
But there is a very low cost way to enhance notifications — outsource. The City could simply cooperate with a San Francisco software company – Building Eye – and format all of the city permits data already in Excel files — permits for new furnaces, roofs, bathrooms, building additions, outbuildings, re-landscaping, new wings, new homes, etc.. — for intake and upload into the Building Eye database and web application. This application let’s any curious web literate person freely browse the permit applications by pins of address locations on a map, etc. A user can drill down and see the stage of the project – applications only, some approvals, or permit about to issued, etc. A user can set up an email alert to receive daily alerts about permit applications within 1500 feet of your location. See buildingeye.com for Palo Alto.
Image Source: http://californiastorypolecontractor.com
Story Poles for Commercial Development are Reconsidered
The idea of requiring “story poles” for all commercial development applications will be revisited. Story poles are like very light weight scaffolding that is erected at the proposed building to show the outline of a building — its walls and roof — in order to display the buildings size relative to its surroundings. The prior council had considered but dropped the idea of story poles because at the time, staff found that story poles could be erected only up to about 30 feet tall. They could not have been used to depict the new 45 foot condominiums now completed on First Street downtown.
Lalahpolitico: However story poles would have been useful for depicting the Enchante Hotel on San Antonio. See this post on the hotel plan vs. the reality. Most people were quite surprised by how massively it fills that tiny lot and looms over its surroundings. But the prior council did approve requiring photosimulations of new commericial projects showing the proposed project in its setting. Lalahpolitico feels the photosims – if done properly – are more useful to the public than story poles. See this post on 3D photosimulation in Los Altos.
The council will hear back from the Planning and Transportation Commission and staff about neighbor notification enhancements and story poles in a few months. In May, after this Open Government pilot program, the council will decide on the contents of a final open government ordinance.