The Los Altos Historic District Overlay ordinances have been on the books since the 1990’s, but remained unused till now. A group of home owners who live in contiguous group of 37 nice-looking Eichlers — which happen to be stuck in the middle of a “neighborhood” of ranch style homes generously mixed in with two-story homes — is asking City Council to excuse them from the usual $4500 City fee for administering a residential overlay. This is the fee which has been charged over the years for the creation of the City’s eight R-1S Single Story Overlay zones. [Actually the fee went from $4000 to $4500 at some point in time.]
Reasons to NOT EXCUSE the $4500 Overlay Fee
The two newest City Council members — Prochow and Mordo — were elected on platforms of fairness and equal treatment. The other three members – Pepper, Bruins, and Satterlee – have histories of being even-handed. Lalahpolitico can’t see the morality or probability of these Eichler owners getting a freebie here.
City planning staff estimates it costs about $4500 to administer a voting process that decides whether a residential overlay goes forward. At present 66 2/3 percent of the property owners are supposed to vote YES for the zoning change. The applicants have secured YES signatures of 71% of the homeowners in their proposed district.
City planning staff has pointed out that when YES signators also kick in their fair share of the fee — about $125 to $150 per home would be ideal — the petitioners can be very confident of the voting outcome.
Concerns about Overlaying Historic Districts on Homes vs. Commercial
When the One-Story Overlay ordinances were passed and applied, City Planning staff liked to point out the R1-S overlay would cause NO EXTRA WORK & TAXPAYER COSTS FOR PLANNING STAFF. Why? Because the regulations for a one-story plan in R1 zone are exactly the same a the regulations for a one-story in a R1-S zone. Actually the City Staff really likes one story remodels because they can be processed by the planning department without involving the Planning and Transportation Commission or the Design Review Commission, unless there is a variance request.
Were the proposed Historic District of 37 homes to be enacted, it would be like adding 37 two-story residece to Los Altos housing inventory in terms of staff time. It’s yet another bunch of one-off home that will each have to be administered as a “unique snowflake.” But instead of the volunteers of Design Review / Planning & Transportation being involved, it will be the volunteers of the Historical Commission / Planning & Transportation doing the reviewing of any exterior home modification. And final exterior remodel denial/approval decisions sometimes get kicked up to the City Council.
Wasn’t the concept of a Historic District in addition to the concept of a Historic Building originally adopted in Los Altos with the idea that it might be applied to whole downtown commercial core Main & State in the case of an emergency of overdevelopment? So far the Historical Commission has shown restraint carefully convincing individual property owners – commercial or residential – one by one to accept a Historic Building designation.
Other ways to Keep Things …the Same
Lalahpolitico: Is the administration of Historic Districts in addition to the administration of Historic Buildings one by one, something the City of Los Altos is really prepared to tackle? What do taxpayers who don’t live in Historic Districts think? Are there other tools available for swaths of neighbors who want to “keep things pretty much the way they are now?”
Single Story Overlay Instead?
Sadly for the 37 Eichlers, after the debacle of Cambridge Circle Single Story Overlay process, the City has fine tuned that law to prevent the gerrymandering. Previously, applicants could gerrymander the boundaries of their “overlay neighborhood” such that the homes of NO signatures were carved out unnaturally from the “consistent character neighborhood.” To Lalahpolitico’s eyes, one can see from maps and a drive by visit, that the 37 Eichlers would have to include quite a few two stories to define a “natural neighborhood” as defined by the traffic circulation. The actual neighborhood – with its double circle road layout — is probably more like 70 homes. It’s hard to see “consistent charater” if one considers all the homes.
HOA, Deed Covenants, Restrictions, Easements Instead?
The thirty-seven Eichler homeowners could agree to form a Home Owner Association, or attach private agreements to their deeds. But a HOA has costs and requires volunteers from among its members. Many people who moved into Los Altos do so in part to leave condos or other HOA “busy-body” housing behind. Instead the City zoning is our HOA: we are compelled to cut tall weeds, can’t put cars up on blocks in the driveway, park our recreation vehicle on the curb for storage, build a permanent lemonade stand in the front yard, etc. But we are not prevented from voluntarily creating private agreements in writing that are MORE RESTRICTIVE than R1 zoning. But it not the City’s job to enforce those agreements.
Who pays to Enforce a Historic Distrct?
Do us taxpayers want to pay the costs of to enforcing a Historic District for the 37 Eichler homeowners IN PERPETUITY? Lahlahpolitico would prefer to have the city grant them a single story overlay exception, aka to permit a gerrymander of the neighborhood.
To see how large the bureaucracy of staff and volunteers can become for the administration of Historic Districts look at the City of Los Angeles.
Here in Los Altos, we don’t have those resources; and frankly we don’t that much history either. And we don’t have kind of “mansionification.” [It is amusing that “antique/historic” used to be 100 years old for objects, but now that our American expected lifespan has increased from 72 to 92 years old, objects that are only 50 years old are “antique/historic.”]
How Green is Historic Preservation? Energy Efficiency anyone?
What will a Historic District mean specifically for these 37 Eichlers? Eichlers are notoriously “energy leaky as are most old homes. An historic designation generally says keep everything the same on the exterior FOREVER. [There is no possibility of a district being reversed as with Single Story Overlays.] Will these 37 Eichlers be allowed by the Los Altos Historical Commission to install double pane glass? Or is the original glass historically important as with most historic buildings? Must the Eichler window replacements be in the same size and location? Probably. Will those need to be custom made at great cost or what? Probably. Are they allowed to remove more exterior wood walls beyond just for termite damage repair, for example, in order to insulate walls and roofs? Maybe not.
New Facsimile Houses Keep History Alive too, but are Green
Lalahpolitico is personally an Eichler lover. If I had the funds I would love to build a totally brand new Eichler facsimile home for myself, but making certain design modifications to keep it greener. I’d use a Green Demolition company to remove the leaky home. And Lalahpolitico applauds the interest of new arrivals to Los Altos, who tear down a leaky old house and replace it with their favorite historical revival style – Mission, net-spanish Colonial, Tuscan, Greek Revival, Cape Code, Dutch Colonial, 4-square Craftsman, neo-Prairie (Frank Lloyd Wright.) All nice and energy efficient…
Issues with Our Los Altos Overlay Process – single story or historic
1. The proponents define the neighborhood and in the case of this Eichler group, there is technically a gerrymander. [ In contrast, in Los Angeles, a historic district can contain some non-historic homes. Those are designated as “non-contributing” and don’t have to follow the historic zoning strictures. ] There needs to be a process for alerting affected homeowners of the proposed overlay “neighborhood” very early, so the definition can be tweaked before the vote. You can find yourself lumped in with streets you haven’t been on for 20 years and don’t consider your neighborhood.
2. The proponents are in charge of the notification mailing list and have to provide ONLY first class postage. This is putting the fox in charge of the hen house. There will be at least one rented home – don’t mail to the home but rather to the property manager address. There will be at least one demented elderly lady living alone with a paid caretaker – don’t mail to the home but rather get the address of some out-of-town family members from the caretaker. Ideally the person with power-of-attorney should vote on the old lady’s behalf, like with real voting. Also, if letters were sent certified mail or registered mail, a tenant or caretaker would realize the contents were actually really important and not toss the ballot in the trash If a property owner has not submitted a vote by the cutoff, the city staff should not assume an abstain. Staff or police should investigate. Don’t let the proponent’s handle this.
3. Proponents may use intimidation tactics to exploit newly arrived foreign immigrant property owners who aren’t familiar with U.S. freedoms. When a group of 4 or 5 male neighbors rings the immigrant’s door bell and asks to come in to explain the overlay… that is just what intimidation looks like in China for example.
Los Altos Historical Overlay Ordinance needs Time for Fleshing Out
Before proceeding any further with a Historic Overlay for these 37 Eichlers, City Council should ask staff to evaluate how these will be administered and enforced. What are likely to be the City costs? Study how small cities manage historic overlays. Study big cities too.
Lalahpolitico understands some of the public benefits of many of the buildings in the Los Altos Historic Buildings inventory. We can walk by some on Main Street. There a history tour of downtown for the public schools. On a rotating basis,some of the historic homes participate in a biannual History House Tour.
However, there is no obligation for these homeowners to participate in the History House Tour. Also Lalahpolitico wishes ticket scholarships for the tour, and perhaps transportation, would be offered to the less-advantaged including those living outside our city. I don’t mean a senior discount. When old buildings are not removed, but instead “preserved,” gentrification is often the result. Let’s not have welfare for the affluent. ]
But what is the public benefit of having an Eichler district which is so far removed from the beaten path? It will almost never be seen except by the owners unless….?
If a Historic District, why not also a Green District Overlay?
If the City is going to administer custom Historic District Overlays — unlike the STANDARDIZED single story overlay -, why not allow customized Green Overlays? Perhaps some neighborhood agrees that all remodels should be extra green… allow roof shapes and orientations that optimize solar panels…forbid sun blocking tall trees … agree that windows should maximize natural light rather than privacy…agree to more restrictive lot coverage maximums… agree to two stories to minimize lot coverage and reduce storm water run-off…etc.
The concept is similar as with the suspended Los Altos NNTP, a program for traffic mitigation by a self-defined neighborhood district. The City could be setting a precedent for custom overlay districts. Many other zoning overlays are possible as described in this document from Tacoma.
CONCLUSION: Pause the process. Don’t take the $4500.
Lalahpolitico: Don’t excuse the $4500. Don’t take the fee, but rather pause the process to understand what the City’s ongoing staff costs will be for implementing and enforcing custom overlays. Maybe we want them; maybe we don’t. Lalahpolitico is personally interested in custom GREEN OVERLAYS. But I’m not sure the rest of the community wants to finance my personal pet project overlay.