After an emotional meeting concerning a citizens referendum to overturn Belmont’s controversial new home remodel rules, the City Council opted to repeal its recent zoning amendments and push for more engagement.
Instead of placing the city’s Zoning and Tree ordinances on an upcoming ballot, the council opted to proceed with further public outreach while initiating new amendments intended to placate both opponents fearful of change and those struggling to remodel their properties.
The council met Tuesday night to discuss two referendums sparked by the group Ask Belmont Citizens, which gathered more than 2,000 signatures seeking a repeal of the amendments city officials worked for more than a year to craft.
With parties on both sides offering heated support and criticism during the meeting that lasted until nearly 1:30 a.m., the City Council ultimately expressed concern about further dividing the community through an election.
“Our community is awake, our community is engaged, and everyone should be ready for a nice healthy discussion on how to move the city forward,” said Councilwoman Cathy Wright. “But I think it needs to be clear, not everybody in this room is going to agree.”
Faced with two options — either place the amendments on a ballot or repeal them and be prohibited from making essentially the same changes for at least a year — the council unanimously moved to modify its proposal and continue with more public engagement.
Staff will issue a citywide mailer highlighting opportunities to get involved, such as a question and answer session with staff slated for sometime near mid-August, Community Development Director Carlos de Melo said. People will also have opportunity to comment online and during noticed public hearings at Planning Commission and City Council meetings. Ultimately, the council would like to finalize the ordinances sometime in October, de Melo said.
The nearly 40 amendments included easing parking requirements, increasing the maximum home size for larger lots, changing the definition of protected trees and creating a tiered review system with modest additions approved by staff while larger projects and new homes would have been considered by the Planning Commission.
Despite nearly 10 public meetings over the last year that led to the development of the amendments, many residents said they were concerned that few were aware of the changes and disagreed with the process — such as bundling multiple alterations to the city’s influential remodel rules.
“Some of our zoning and tree ordinances need surgery to bring them up to date, but with a scalpel, not an ax,” said resident Joseph Brennan.
Richard Hughes, a 47-year Belmont resident, said the process was frustrating and “to lump all these changes together and force them down their throat without a vote, I think is wrong.”
Some of the opponents’ arguments also included concerns of oversized McMansions sprouting up throughout the quaint town, more cars being parked on the street and the city’s lush tree canopy beginning to disappear.
While many members of Ask Belmont Citizens noted few residents with whom they spoke were aware of the changes, others questioned their signature gathering techniques as zoning ordinances are a complex topic and its easy to unintentionally spread misinformation.
“I’m pleased that more people know about this now, however, I’m very concerned by some of the tactics I’ve heard about,” Councilman Charles Stone said. “The shame of all this is now I don’t know what this petition means. I don’t know if it means 2,200 people were displeased with the process or 2,200 people were displeased with the outcome.”
Members of the public and council urged the petition signers to identify specific concerns or what types of compromises would be acceptable.
Mayor David Braunstein and Wright noted while the council can conduct outreach, at a certain point, it’s up to individuals to stay engaged and involved.
“If we’re really trying to compromise, I’d love for people to come forward and say ‘this will help us to compromise,’” Braunstein said. “But what’s our responsibility and what’s yours to hear it, to get the information? … How do we avoid a situation like this again? I want to solve the problem, then talk about a policy that addresses the needs.”
Belmont has long had some of the most restrictive and subjective home remodel criteria in San Mateo County, frustrating some who’ve struggled to navigate the city’s system while trying to make room for growing families or improving their homes. Vice Mayor Eric Reed and Stone served on the subcommittee that helped study and craft the controversial ordinances. Reed and Stone suggested instead of starting over from scratch, that the amendments be scaled back.
Although they will still be up for public discussion and likely evolve throughout more hearings, the council initiated new amendments Tuesday night, de Melo said.
Reed suggested secondary units be reduced from the current 1,200 square foot max to 1,000 square feet or up to 40 percent of the main home’s size, require new homes construct garages and reduce the cap on home size from 6,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet — still the smallest in the county.
The council suggested more remodel projects provide notice to neighbors and be reviewed by the zoning administrator or Planning Commission. It also moved to increase the protected tree list by adding more species and smaller trees of 16 inches in diameter instead of 18 inches, de Melo said.
As the night wore on and the council began making suggestions, members of Ask Belmont Citizens again grew concerned the process was circumventing more outreach.
“I do not think that represents a democratic process. It’s not likely to lead to consensus and it’s not likely to lead to healing in the community,” said resident Daniel Pierce. “Please don’t do this again. Take them one by one. … Prioritize what really needs to be done. If you’re trying to help Belmont families, that is the right process.”
Visit http://belmont.gov/city-hall/community-development/planning-and-zoning/zoning-text-amendments for more information about the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106