Expansion dispute to City Council: Guidelines for San Mateo home remodel questioned, views at issue

Terri Schmier points to where her family plans on adding a second story to their home on Verdun Avenue in San Mateo. The City Council will review the proposal as the addition became controversial because it would partially block a neighbor's view of the Bay.

Trying to balance the needs of a growing family while not unduly infringing on a neighbor is a struggle a small residential block in San Mateo is facing and now the City Council will weigh in on deciphering design guidelines.

San Mateo’s planning design guidelines were established about 12 years ago in response to a second story addition that was constructed on Verdun Avenue that blocked part of a neighbor’s view.

The steep street off of Hillsdale Boulevard offers panoramic views of the Bay Area and is made up of one-story, split-level and two-story homes.

Terri and Michael Schmier bought their home on Verdun Avenue just west of Hillsdale High School about 15 years ago. Terri Schmier said they have two growing daughters and want to prepare for an inevitable time when one of their parents may need to move in. About a year ago, they applied to build an 889-square-foot second-story addition with a 149-square-foot patio atop the street side portion of their home.

Karen Trudell, who lives uphill from the Schmiers, said this remodel will completely take away the sweeping Bay view she’s adored for 20 years from her master bedroom and lose about 40 percent to 50 percent of the view from her living room.

“We’ve adhered to all of the design guidelines as well as the laws and ordinances,” Terri Schmier said. “We don’t want to block her view but unfortunately there’s no other place we can build on our house without some sort of impact on her. So we’ve tried twice in the last nine years to move, but it’s just the real estate market is insane. It would cost us over $2 million to get a house with the space that we’re trying to get.”

The proposal was approved by the zoning administrator and upheld by the Planning Commission and the council will hear an appeal at its Monday night meeting.

The guidelines include provisions for a builder to respect a neighbor’s existing view and consider view equity. Trudell said part of the conflict is the design guidelines are subjective and feels as though her interests are being overlooked.

“It’s been really devastating because I’ve lived in the community and raised my girls here for over 20 years. And I moved here because it has great schools and the neighborhood is safe and the view,” Trudell said. “We’re pretty sure I’m not going to win this thing in the end but hopefully … maybe it will bring this all up front to say you, the planners, need to come up with better guidelines.”

Trudell and other neighbors said they want to see the city codify a view ordinance that outlines what percentage of view blockage would be acceptable and require builders to set up poles to give neighbors an accurate picture of what to expect.

Schmier said the Planning Division recommended against putting up poles. Schmier said they’ve spent $18,000 on city fees, twice as much as a similar project, and reworked their design to avoid blocking Trudell’s primary living room view.

Planning Commissioner Rick Bonilla said the design guidelines are meant to be subjective and he supported the project because the Schmiers adjusted their proposal to ease the effects on Trudell.

“The process is there, it’s in place. It exists and it’s worked for a lot of people,” Bonilla said. “I think that’s really the fair way to do it. Knowing what I know, I wouldn’t support an ordinance that tries and codify view guidelines. It needs to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. No two cases are alike on this.”

Some neighbors are concerned that approving the Schmier’s addition would create an epidemic of other remodels that block neighbor’s views.

Jennifer Deutscher, a 15-year-Verdun Avenue resident, said some of the 30 homes on the street could soon be sold because of the age of the owners. With younger families moving in, remodeling and building up could become the norm, Deutscher said.

“This addition is going to block more than Karen’s view; it has a much broader effect. This is dividing our whole street. The Schmiers are a very nice family and Karen is a very nice person,” Deutscher said. “It’s not that these are bad people, it’s just that people want to build up and, in this day and age of entitled citizens, it’s ‘I’m going to build up because I want to.’”

Trudell said she’s distraught over losing her view and fears her home would lose value without it. Trudell said she understands the Schmiers want to make room for their family, but it shouldn’t be at her expense.

“I’m not against building, I’m not against improving what you have for your family. It’s when it adversely affects others then I am,” Trudell said. “We’re both trying to do what’s best for our families but we’re caught in this net because of the guidelines. … It’s not defined enough.”

Schmier said with multi-generational homes becoming the norm in the Bay Area given the price of real estate, making stringent guidelines could have negative implications.

“We need to figure out a way to balance the need of all homeowners and I think it would be a mistake frankly to let the view trump all other considerations,” Schmier said. “Which is why I think the design guidelines frankly do a really good job of trying to balance that.”

The City Council meeting is 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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