This photo shows a street in East Palo Alto.
A zoning ordinance dealing with garage conversions and secondary units does not seem like an attention grabbing topic. But, judging by the number of residents who packed the East Palo Alto City Council chamber on Tuesday, May 6, the night the ordinance was discussed, the topic is a key one for many in the East Palo Alto community.
In fact, the huge parking lot outside of the Municipal Building, where the council meeting was held, was so full that some residents had difficulty finding parking -- an unusual situation for most city council meetings.
But, given the fact that there is an imbalance in East Palo Alto between the supply of affordable housing and the demand for it, the possibility of revising one of the city’s ordinances to create more housing attracted many residents to the council meeting.
After a nearly two-hour discussion that started at 10 p.m. and ended just before midnight, the East Palo Alto City Council decided to table the entire issue and continue the discussion at its next council meeting.
The residents at the meeting were not disappointed by the postponement, because the council was prepared to revise numerous provisions in the current zoning ordinance that would encourage the creation of additional housing in the community.
Council member Abrica said, “There seems to be consensus…. We’re getting close to something. But maybe we should postpone the vote just to take no chances.”
Council member Donna Rutherford said, “I don’t see why we’re being forced to take a vote on something when I’m in a place where I’m not comfortable because there are some questions that need to be addressed. If those questions can be addressed at our next meeting, we can take a vote.”
In considering whether to pass an ordinance that would allow city residents to convert their garages to living quarters and add second dwelling units, the council had a number of issues to consider. The council had to decide on whether to 1) amend a zoning ordinance in order to encourage second dwelling units, 2) reduce current restrictions that prevent garage conversions and accessory structures and 3) establish provisions that would allow home owners to have guest houses.
The report the city staff prepared showed that the new changes to the ordinance and the accompanying proposals would reduce the space homeowners would need to keep around their houses. This reduction from 5,500 sq. ft. to 5,000 sq. ft. would allow for more parking spaces for more residents living in one house.
One key finding in the report revealed that the proposed changes to the parking requirements, the housing setbacks and the new provisions related to guest houses and garages would enable 1,000 additional homeowners in the city to have second dwelling units on their property.
This possibility led some to be alarmed, since it raised the concern that thousands of additional residents living in second dwelling units, “could have deleterious environmental impacts on air quality, traffic and circulation and existing infrastructure.” By passing the ordinance the council would, in effect, double the density of the city through an ordinance revision.
Such an ordinance revision would then require the city to consider the environmental impact that would result and mandate that it conduct expensive and extensive environmental reviews.
Also, since garage conversions would be complex, time consuming and costly, they would require city and fire department inspections and mandate additional and costly fees to be paid by homeowners.
Rather than deal with the ordinance and all of the issues related to it separately, the council decided to place the issue in the General Plan Update where it would be more practical to deal with the environmental impact issues.
In explaining this approach, Abrica said, “We have some regulations that should have been changed....This general planning process is very unique in that it’s allowing our community to really have a lot of engagement. Ostensibly, it’s a visioning process. Part of our history in East Palo Alto is that often we don’t have time to just sit around and create visions. We have to deal with reality, such as it is.
“So, we’re creating a vision as we’re trying to correct what’s there and accommodate the real life in our community. This planning process of the General Plan can allow us to fashion some solution….Wherever we stand on the issue, we can come around the table and find common ground to solve as much as we can,” he said.
Council member Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier agreed. “It makes sense to couple this with the General Plan, so that we’re doing everything together,” she said. “Let’s hold off and do just that. Let’s take the time to make sure we’re looking at the entire community. We have some residents who have been here a very long time. People are going to be affected by this on opposite sides, but we want to do what’s best for the entire community.”
Hearing the council's decision, not to make a decision, involved a long wait for many in the audience. When the meeting was over, even several council members said that they were tired.
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