On March 6th, 2017, I attended a Piedmont City Council meeting, that occurs every two weeks to discuss bills and pass laws. This particular meeting focused on planned revisions to the City Code, specifically revisions to planning and land use, Chapter 17, and repeals of policies in the City Code. The Council also talked about adopting Interim Design Guidelines.
The meeting began with the pledge of allegiance, and most notably the passage of a resolution affirming the action of the Alameda County Mayor’s Conference against hate speech through the passage of Resolution 01-17, as well as a discussion of its importance. Council members thanked the Mayor for his participation during the meeting and stressed the importance the resolution had as a symbol of progress.
Next, the meeting opened to a public forum. I was the first speaker, and I urged the Council to choose one of the best candidates, my mother, Tracey Woodruff, who had been interviewed before the start of the meeting, for the Climate Action Plan Task Force. The next (and last) speakers were also students. Katy Savage spoke about stopping the blockage of storm drains and Shannon Baack spoke about putting crosswalks on dangerous parts of St James Drive.
After Shannon left the stand, the Council began the main agenda. The first issue they presented was the recommended City Code changes, specifically zoning code changes and short term rental changes, mostly concerning fine tuning the code to address current building patterns and to increase ease of use, as well as simplification of the chapters.
After a staff report on the specific changes of the City Code, the discussion of the code began. During the discussion, it was brought up by a Council member that the laws regarding the Grand Avenue sub area had been getting a lot of attention but are a small part of the code. It was proposed that when the changes are adopted, the regulations of the Grand Avenue sub area would be reverted to status quo. Although the city said they would try to work with the people who had complaints regarding the Grand Avenue sub area while keeping the status quo, City Administrator Paul Benoit said that the entire public is never happy about any one decision, and that the decision regarding zoning laws will be no different.
Councilmember Jen Cavanaugh stressed the importance of public knowledge and perception of the problems addressed by the City Council. The more people know about a problem and the changes it requires, the less people are unhappy when the Council makes a decision. In fact, a couple of Council members stressed the importance of the process of the creation and approval of such changes.
Every step is important. Overlooking or rushing something could cause easily preventable mistakes and an unhappy public. Council members understand the importance of a careful process. During the discussion, it was made clear that this meeting was not to be the meeting where the changes were finally approved. Rather, its purpose was to determine the intent of the Council members and include them in the final draft of the changes to the code, in regards to the Grand Avenue sub area.
The floor was then opened up to public forum. The Mayor suggested that those who want to passionately speak on the Zone D regulations for the Grand Avenue sub area and short term rental should “save their fire” for a later meeting, when the Council focuses on those two issues.
The first speaker approved the Council’s decision regarding the short-term rentals. The second speaker, Joy Koletsky Jacobs was upset that Grand Avenue sub area residents weren’t adequately notified of the meetings regarding the changes to the code for said sub area. She asked that residents be notified by mail and not email, as a person is more likely to give attention to their mail rather than their email. The third speaker, Mark Loper, decided to save his fire for a later date.
The fourth speaker, Ted Kinch, spoke of his worry about the loss of parking and increase of traffic that might come with the Zone D changes, which includes the Civic Center. The center is near a school, so the increased traffic might lead to problems with children walking to school.
The fifth speaker, Miguel de Avelon thanked the council for separating the Zone D and short term rental changes. The sixth speaker, Dimitri Magganas, expressed his neutrality on most of the changes, but disliked the idea of having AirBnB in Piedmont.
After public forum closed, the Council reviewed the addendum revisions. These included limiting the number of signs in commercial establishments to a percentage of window area rather than a strict number cap, and reverting short term rental regulations to the current status quo, as well as changing the regulation of Zone D, which includes the Grand Avenue sub area regulations for lot coverage, landscaping, structural height, street yard setback, side and rear yard setback and reverts them to current regulations.
The floor to ceiling height for the Civic Center sub area will also be increased from 12 feet to 15 feet in the draft. Another recommended change was to permit ground floor residential use except for entry into the upper floors, as well as reverting parking for Zone D to current regulations, meaning that the parking spaces required for dwelling units greater than 700 square feet to 2 rather than 1.5, as well as deleting the provision that exempts parking for the first 1500 square square feet of commercial floor area. For commercial uses, they recommend keeping the one parking space per 150 square feet for high volume spaces and 250 square feet for low volume spaces.
The Council then discussed deferring the discussion of short term rentals and Zone D (Grand Avenue sub area) to a later date. They decided to save the resolution for those issues for another meeting. Councilmember Jen Cavenaugh then went on to thank the public for their attendance to the meetings.
The conversation then turned to parking, regarding the changes that this new draft brings. In the draft, uncovered and tandem parking counts towards a house’s parking requirements. When questioned on the inclusion of tandem parking in the revision, the Planning Director explained that this was decided based on precedent from the Planning Commission. Although the code allowed tandem parking, it was pointed out that it is an unused practice in most cases, and that most would rather park in their driveway or on the street.
There was worry that the parking revisions were discouraging on-street parking by not allowing people to park in 20 foot setback (distance from building to property line). However, people are welcome to park in their own 20 foot setback, it is just not counted towards required parking for a home.
One Council member pointed out that the law assumes that if you add a room you add a car, which has not proven to be in correlation. He says that he doesn’t want parking to be a problem for people who want to expand their house, and pointed out that adding more ways to fill the parking requirement will help those who want to expand. In their review, the Planning Commission has the power to request more parking from a residence than meets the parking requirement, if they feel that the parking situation around the residence is unsafe.
Finally, Council member Teddy G. King pointed out that efforts to accommodate vehicles has become a problem in California, in regards to carbon emissions and global warming, and that the city of Piedmont has adopted an environmental policy that has to do with moving people out of their vehicles. Tandem parking would help relieve streets of congestion, and serve as an alternative to multiple parking spots, thus decluttered streets and encouraging fewer cars.
Another planned change is to Zone C, multi-family home parking requirements. This change would reduce the parking requirements of a multi-family home if they are to be redeveloped. The concern brought up with this change is that the multi-family homes are usually next to residential neighborhoods, and that nearby residents are upset by redevelopment because they fear it means fewer parking spaces. However, the changes are not limiting parking; they are lowering the required amount. The thinking is that the city doesn’t want to force residents to build unnecessary and useless parking.
The developers are free to put in more parking if they feel the need to do so, the City just doesn’t want to force people to create parking if they don’t need it. More parking spaces makes moving to Piedmont more expensive, as new residents have to pay for their own parking. This lowers the number of people moving to Piedmont. This is consistent with the Planning Commissions goal of creating a low density urban environment.
The Council then moved on to the changes regarding Zone E, which are essentially very large residential properties. The changes proposed are roughly the same as those proposed for Zone A, allowing people to build up to their property line. Both Zone A and E have the same development pattern: a front yard, a house in the middle of the property, a backyard, and garages and others structures towards the back of the property. The revision is meant to incentivize this building pattern by making it easier to build accessory structures in the back of the property next to the property line. This is to ensure that the front yard remains open, that the house is not next to an accessory structure, and that the backyard remains open between the buildings. This building pattern creates space between the structures and on the property, a more ideal and pleasing design for both the residents and their neighbors as it allows for more privacy.
A revision also allows people to build site features without having to add them to their lot coverage. The intent of the structure coverage limit is to limit the amount of structures on a building that would have a negative impact on nearby structures. However, having a small number of additional structures on a property really doesn’t have any adverse effect, so the Planning Commission decided to allow a certain amount to be built on a property without adding to the coverage limit.
Site features such as a hot tub, built-in barbeque or bench really don’t have a negative impact, and these are the features that people usually want to add. Because people apply for such changes on a regular basis, the Planning Commission wants to remove this requirement of an application, so that it can be addressed in code rather than variance. Essentially, the Planning Commission is trying to improve the process to make it easier for residents.
During the discussion of revisions to property regulations the clock struck 9:30 p.m. This was the student curfew for school activities, and so I had to leave the meeting in accordance with the school code. Although the meeting continued for another half hour I was unable to write about it, because I wasn’t there.
by Xavier Woodruff-Madeira, Piedmont High School Senior