May 17 2017

Planning Commission Considers Small House Policy and Tall Fences

Planning Commission confronts applications for additional bedrooms without off-street parking and high fences next to sidewalks. 

by Leah Kochendoerfer, Piedmont High School Senior –

 On Monday, May 8th, 2017 at 5:00pm, the Planning Commission met in order to consider approval of projects proposed for property in Piedmont. Between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., the members of the Planning Commission discussed four specific cases: 419 Moraga Avenue, 156 Wildwood Avenue, 139 Lexford Road, and 361 Moraga Avenue. Four projects were conditionally approved; however, each had their own set of adjustments necessary to ensure approval.  

The resident of 419 Moraga Avenue submitted an application seeking the approval of modifications to her windows, as well as the approval of a room conversion into a bedroom without providing the necessary parking ratio. The application had previously been denied under the Small House Policy, in which bedroom count cannot exceed a certain number without simultaneously increasing parking. However, the resident argued that similar construction had taken place in neighboring homes in which bedroom to parking ratios had been consistent with her plans, and thus her construction should be approved. When asked why she could not create more parking in order to make the increase in room count legal, she suggested that her driveway was too steep for a car to park, and a garage could not be added without demolishing the entire house, thus indicating the Variance criteria of unusual physical circumstances. Susan Ode and Eric K. Behrens, members of the Planning Commission, both rejected the resident’s argument by stating that no house should be compared to another, as each is in a unique circumstance. Another commissioner introduced the consideration of traffic on Moraga, noting that creating another unit would only increase car flow down the already busy street. Ultimately reflecting the Planning Commission’s decision, Tom Ramsey noted the importance of being consistent and supported the variance under the condition that the driveway could be modified in order to supply an additional parking spot.

 The subsequent resident submitted an application for the construction of a new six foot wooden fence with two gates on their Wildwood Avenue property. The resident expressed the need of a new fence after having experienced several incidents of stolen property, and also commented on the benefits of adding more room to the property, the convenience of having access to the home through a side yard, and the general aesthetic of a new fence.

Responses from the Planning Commission included Commissioner Eric Behrens who stated that the fence was out of character and not, in fact, aesthetic.  Commissioner Susan Ode noted that the horizontal planks would not match the vertical ones. Additionally, Commissioner Jonathan Levine suggested that neighboring houses along Wildwood Avenue do not have these fences and a fence this tall would look imposing from the street. Similarly, Commissioner Aradhana Jajodia stated that the fence calls attention to itself and takes away the otherwise open feeling. Commissioner Tom Ramsey worried about the precedent this situation would set in allowing people to set up six foot tall fences when desired. Thus, the Planning Commission came to the conclusion that the fence would be approved only if it followed the four foot maximum outlined in the Design Guidelines.

I personally believe that the four foot maximum fence height is a valid code, as the City of Piedmont should be a relatively open space that makes neighbors feel welcome. A tall fence would definitely separate the house from the otherwise community feel, and make surrounding residents less comfortable when walking alongside it.

Next, the Planning Commission discussed the application for a new house and fence design submitted by Paul Simonetti wanted to install a gate and fence along his property.  Simonetti stated his concern about recent break-ins. He was also looking to plant a new maple tree. Commissioner Behrens was  concerned with the sight-lines when exiting the driveway, to which Simonetti ensured that the fence would slowly decrease in height when backing out of the driveway, allowing for an unobstructed view of the street and potential cars.

Commissioner Ramsey brought up the code involving a foot-wide section between the fence and the sidewalk, which the Commission and Simonetti agreed could be used for landscaping plants. Lastly, while Commissioner Levine agreed that the arbor would distinguish the house entrance, it needed to be a more modest size. Therefore, the project was approved under the conditions that the tree would not be planted and that a foot wide landscaped section would be installed between the sidewalk and fence.

The residents of 361 Moraga Avenue, sought approval for the construction of additional office space in order to increase living space for their family of four. After having two storage rooms built, the owners stopped the project in December in order to ensure the project was up to code. The owners gathered signatures from neighbors approving the variance and now only needed permission from the Planning Commission.

Commissioner Levine addressed his concern that the office space could be transformed into a bedroom when sold in the future and advertised as a five-bedroom house with two bedrooms sharing one bathroom. This would go against the Small House Policy, as the property only holds one parking spot currently. When Levine asked the residents about the possibility of increasing the garage size, an owner stated that the garage was surrounded by concrete and any modifications would thus be infeasible.

On the other hand, Commissioner Behrens assured that access to the bathroom was not direct and thus the house could not be advertised as five-bedroom. Additionally, Commissioner Aradhana Jajodia stated that if someone truly wanted to do illegal construction with the intent of increasing the bedroom count in a house, they would not have come to the Planning Commission to seek approval in the first place. The application consideration concluded with the Planning Commission approving the plan with the condition that the framing of the door be removed, confirming that the space is purely office space, not a bedroom.

 Amy Shen, attended the Planning Commission meeting seeking approval for a home remodel as well as a variance on her lot size. Because the City of Piedmont only allows residents to have structures on 40% of one’s lot, plans to exceed this limit require the approval of a variance by the Planning Commission. When asked what she learned through the process of these meetings, she responded that she “learned that design is subjective and that because of the limitations of speaking time, you have to be direct in presenting what you want to say as well as in the documentation you present prior to the meeting.” Because the Planning Commission did not authorize the proposed remodel, she will now have to begin the process again with a new design, addressing the changes advised by the Planning Commission members.

The Planning Commission meets once per month on the second Monday of the month at 5:00 p.m., to discuss the alteration and construction plans of Piedmont homes.

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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