City Council

Los Altos Larkellen Single Story Overlay — Blatantly Gerrymandered

Los Altos Single Story Overlay. Larkellen. Defining a District is controlled by Overlay proponents. .
Defining a District is controlled by Overlay proponents. Not a level playing field...
Written by lalahpolitico

UPDATE March 1, 2017.  Last night the Council approved the overlay with the boundaries as preferred by the application. The process will move towards the election. [This is a summary from the City Clerk about Council meeting action taken last night.]

Feb. 28, 2017 — Sigh. Yet another Gerrymandered Single Story Overlay in the City of Los Altos –  the Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay in south Los Altos

If you don’t already know, the City of Los Altos has an ordinance that allows 66.67 percent of a group of typically at least 10 or more single-family, home-owning neighbors to gang up on the other 33.3 percent, taking away their property right to ever rebuild their homes as a conforming two-story. The idea is …that on city blocks with mainly unimproved one-story homes which were built and remodeled with nearly an identical and “consistent” boring character … a new two-story would be undesirable. It would be “massive” and presumably unattractive in such a harmonious setting.

See Item 6: Larkellen Lane Single-Story Overlay District Boundary on the Feb. 28 City Council Agenda, 7 pm.

Lalahpolitico has always felt a key human motivation behind these Single Story Overlay (SSO) actions is to avoid feeling envy. A swank, new two-story makes the existing neighbors suddenly feel poor. You know how you feel when you can’t keep up with the Joneses. Or maybe you are the Joneses?

The ordinance requires SSO applicants to come up with over $4000 to pay for an election and to provide a petition showing at least 50%  support of a proposed district’s home owners/residents.

From a second floor a neighbor could possibly see you and your family in your backyard. God forbid!

Aesthetics, not Privacy is the Concern? Really?

The City report on this Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay proposal is a bit odd in how much it stresses that privacy and views are NOT to be a consideration in determining the boundaries of a SSO neighborhood. Obviously these are usually exactly some of the key motivations of SSO proponents. A proponent may fear that a lustful neighbor on a second floor has nothing better to do than ogle the proponent’s children playing innocently in their back yard. Or perhaps there will be unbearable “light pollution” from second floor lights left on! Better take action to keep those two-stories out of the area!

Instead of concerns about privacy and about views gained or lost, the City report about Larkellen seems to suggest there is something special to cherish aesthetically in the shape of one story design, something ineffable about the “consistent character” of having all one-story homes.

Excerpt from the City Report. The Larkellen applicant petitioned these homes he calls Group 4, but wants to exclude them from the District election process. Fair?

City Staff Seems to Acknowledge the Gerrymander situation

In the Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay application paperwork, the applicant actually admitted that proponents were trying to organize a larger district than what is now being requested in the application paperwork. He/they interviewed 12 neighbors which the applicant does NOT want included in the District. Why? Because including them – with their several NO votes — could likely cause the overlay vote to fail to reach the required 66.7% YES.

As staff points out in the report, all those additional 12 omitted homes are of the same “consistent character” as the proposed 47 homes. [See street image at the top of this post.] Lalahpolitico would like to point out that even more homes than those 12 could be included: why not include all the corner homes on Ravenswood and Oakhurst? Just because the front door faces to one street or the other is NOT a reason to carve out corner properties. [ Remember the failed Cambridge Overlay?…Staff did not allow corner homes to be gerrymandered out of that district.] And why not include the homes on Oak Ave., the contiguous ones behind properties behind Fallenleaf? If you drive through there, or just virtually “tour” those blocks with google maps street view, you will see all these homes seem pretty darn identical and seem to be part of the same “tract.” Aren’t they?

The applicant proposes a SSO district limited to the square area shaded in red. Why did he not include any of the many other “consistent character” homes in the surrounding area? For example all the homes  in yellow areas are indistinguishable from the homes in the red area. For example take a look at the first photo in this article — 1721 vs. 1720 Oakhurst. Very consistent!

LosAltosPolitico Analysis – legal but unfair

Quoting from the report…”Staff received petitions representing that approximately 68 percent of the properties within the proposed district support the application to form a district. The petition in support represented 32 of the 47 properties within the proposed district.”

Lalahpolitico: Wow that is just skimming by at 68%. That also means at least 7 families who responded when petitioned as NOs are going to be screwed. There are 8 families who were not petitioned. So one can’t tell if they will feel screwed or will be thrilled with a Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay. Thus potentially 15 families might be screwed.

If the staff wants to send a message about gerrymandering and include the 12 properties which the applicant does not want to include, then at least 5 more families will feel screwed by an overlay, for a minimum total of 12 screwed.

Lalahpolitico: Technically the Applicant’s District boundary follows the letter of the law of our badly written and administered SSO ordinance, but boy did the applicant gerrymander! [Lalah gives him credit for being honest and not suppressing the “smoking gun” information about his Group 4 gerrymander.] See this excerpt From the Staff Report offering “guidelines” for defining a SSO district boundary…

  • The proposed neighborhood boundary should generally not meander so as to include, or exclude, a small number of parcels in such a way as to be inconsistent with these guidelines; ok.check
  • The defined neighborhood should have at least 75% existing single story development; ok.check
  • The Single Story Overlay District boundary should follow roads, creeks and/or tract boundaries so as to create an identifiable neighborhood or development. City policy is that no preference will be shown for basing neighborhood boundaries on streetscapes or backyard privacy, and that, when possible, deference will be given to the neighborhood proposing the Single Story Overlay boundary; really? “Deference”? Hey guys, this is the language that flat out says an applicant can gerrymander. This language should be stuck from the ordinance as shown ASAP.

The Larkellen SSO applicant does not want to include these 12 homes in the District. City staff thinks they could be included because they seem to be part of the same tract.

Major SSO Reform is needed


Why the shrinking supermajority…from 70% to 66%

When originally concocted, the SSO ordinance required YES votes total was 70%. The first SSO elections failed, so past councils made it easier to screw the 30% opposed to loss of property rights, by lowering the threshold to 66.666 % YES.


Who actually is responsible for “owners” and heirs getting their overlay ballots…

In the past, the SSO applicant seemed to be responsible for the list of names and addresses to whom and where the city would send ballots. In the case of rented homes in a proposed district, that shoddy practice could result in renters, not property managers receiving the ballots. Renters were not advised of the importance of the mail or to forward it. Clearly, the ballots should be sent to the agent named on the Santa Clara County Tax Collector record! Not to renters.

And in the case of 90 year-olds “aging in place” in their home of the past 60 years, it would be nice to send a social worker to visit to make sure the elder is still actually the financially responsible party. To avoid de facto elder financial abuse, perhaps the heirs of the elder should be contacted about the SSO proposal process. The heirs, as out-of-towners, probably don’t read the Town Crier?


What exactly is the definition of Total Votes…

Is winning an SSO election defined as 2/3 of total votes cast, omitting abstainers and other non-returned ballots? Or is winning defined as 2/3 of properties in the proposed district? Clearly this first definition is bad policy. It incentivizes the SSO proponents to “lose” ballots and to intimidate neighbors into abstaining. The definition of winning should always be the stronger requirement – get 2/3 of properties [NOT of total votes cast]  to affirm YES in writing on an official ballot.

Ten years ago in Lalahpolitico’s own area, the smarmy, weak definition was used; the proponents conveniently “lost” a ballot by sending it to a renter; a newly arrived foreign home owner was intimidated to abstain; hence the overlay passed at 66.9% of votes cast…as I recall…by less than 1%.

Ways to mitigate the SSO Gerrymander opportunism…

Letting SSO proponents define the size of their district without any checks and balances except a minimum of 5 to 10 properties is just plain unfair. Obviously the proponent will cherry-pick the blocks of properties to exclude sections of strong NO support. Witness this Larkellen proposal, where the applicant wants to exclude (aka gerrymander out)  the section of “consistent character” homes, he calls group 4.

A. LEVEL THE Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay PLAYING FIELD

  1. Create a process where property owners who were petitioned as NO’s can create an alternate proposal for a district [ larger district] and present a petition that shows over 50% would vote YES for a SSO. If the district meets the “consistent character” test, why should that alternate SSO district not be the “correct” district in which to hold the election? Charge this applicant the usual $4000 plus City fee. [So the City will collect over $8000.] If it is not worth 500 to 1000 dollars each to the Larkellen NOs to protect their property or not worth $4000+ to one of the NOs….”pick up your marbles and go home.” Stop whining.
  2. The City Council could encourage small, 100% YES SSO districts with no “losers”. In the case of Larkellen, depending on where the 7 NO properties are located, perhaps two smaller SSOs could be defined in a way that excludes the 7 NOs.


Some people might like the idea of not covering so much of their lot with buildings


B. CREATE MORE KINDS OF OVERLAYS: The usual $4000 plus City fee applies.

1) TWO-STORY HOME SANCTUARY overlay ordinance – let proponents assemble and petition a minimum number of contiguous properties to define a “sanctuary” district as “protected” from a SSO action for a minimum of 7 years. Any owner in the sanctuary could rely on a window of 7 years to bring a 2-story remodel proposal before the Design Review Commission in the usual manner meeting the usual design review requirements. Winning a sanctuary overlay election is defined as 2/3 of properties. [After seven years, the ordinance could be removed through a similar 2/3 of properties election process. Note this would not be a SSO action, just a sanctuary overlay removal]

Some people might like traditional architectural designs that include a COMPLETE 2nd story. This might be a possible feature of a Green overlay district.

2) “NET ZERO” GREEN overlay ordinance – lets proponents assemble a minimum number of contiguous properties to define a “net zero” green district as one where any remodel or addition of — oh say 50% or more of building square footage – would be built with net zero design techniques and materials. Similar to how the Los Altos Historical Commission reviews changes in an Historical Homes District (see Eichlers), the Los Altos Environmental Commission would review major remodels in a Green overlay. Two-story designs, minimized lot coverage, and triple pane windows on the second story would be encouraged and maybe also required to exploit sunlight and nature’s free thermal units. Only deciduous trees would be allowed in the landscaping in order to leverage the efficieny of roof solar and passive heating and cooling of foliage. In other words, when it comes to the tradeoffs between maximum privacy and maximum energy– efficiency would tend to win. As with the Historical Homes overlay district, each different Green overlay District would probably to have work with an environmental consultant, unless the definition of “Green” overlay can be highly standardized across the entire City.

The Los Altos War on Two-Story Homes

Here is a wedding cake looking two story house

Here is a wedding cake looking two-story house. Sad! Such a busy, busy design.

Right now, the City of Los Altos Design Commission two-story design review process makes tradeoffs that favor MAXIMUM PRIVACY, reducing energy efficiency.   This approach is littering our area with diminutive, often funny-looking “wedding cake” second stories with scant small windows. Lalahpolitico: Did you realize it is not economically feasible/legal to build a new, traditional, “four-square”, 2-story Craftsman design on typical lots in Los Altos? All you can have is that wedding cake 2nd story. To paraphrase our POTUS, sad!

Furthermore, for a given lot size, Los Altos zoning rules require a two-story design to have LESS TOTAL FLOOR AREA than a one-story design. For example, for a Los Altos lot that can build a 4,000 total square foot single story home, the maximum allowed two-story design would be in the 3,700 total square foot range. In other words, a two-story design will have LESS LOT COVERAGE. And less living space. Furthermore, it probably takes at least twice as many months to get a 2-story plan through planning.

Exisiting Los Altos zoning often causes 2nd stories to be small and make a home look like a wedding cake. Sad!


Bottomline: Even outside of our almost 20 SSO districts, there are are HUGE DISINCENTIVES in the zoning code and design review process discouraging the building of two story homes…structures which are definitely “greener” and cheaper to build as “net zero.” The smaller lot coverage of a two-story means less storm water run off into our SF bay. Etc. Lalahpoliltico:  Obviously I am in favor of allowing our citizens to voluntarily come together in self-designated neighborhoods to make design tradeoffs very differently from the way Los Altos at large handles them now.  Besides all the green advantages of two-stories, they leave more lot space for potential secondary units.

Why give lovers of one-story designs a political tool  — the Single Story Overlay Ordinance — and not grant a political tool to two-story design  lovers/tolerators as well? Is Los Altos waging a war on two-stories?


In the case of this Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay proposal and application, it is very tempting to take the advice of staff and draw the Larkellen District with the 12 extra homes in Group 4 included.  If SSO opponents show up at the meeting, the council could ascertain if they have any interest in producing an alternative SSO district map with  an even larger number of homes. If there is interest and capacity to pay the City fees, perhaps the overlay process could be delayed for a month to allow the opponents to do the hard work of petitioning more homes in the tract.

Los Altos Larkellen single story overlay. Is their will to level the playing-field and allow a new petition and district map?

Will the City Council allow interested Larkellen overlay opponents a delay in the process in order to create an alternative map and petition for the election? Or will the Council let the “legal” but unfair gerrymander stand?


About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.

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