Recent controversies over home size in Redwood City have sparked growing concern about the process of appealing residential projects that neighbors feel are too big or incompatible with their surroundings.
Many residents say the city’s appeals process is overly expensive and time consuming and that they are inadequately notified when a project is approved and how they might appeal it.
“It’s expensive to appeal and most folks were unaware that they even had the ability to appeal a project,” said resident Kris Johnson. “The education [was lacking,] the fact that we only notified eight surrounding neighbors — if I was two doors down from a project I wouldn’t be notified even though I’d be impacted.”
Those concerns prompted the city on June 18 to amend the process slightly: staff will now send a copy of the zoning administrator’s decision on a housing project, including instructions for filing an appeal, to the immediately adjacent neighbors “in order to improve awareness of the decision and appeal process,” according to a staff report. Previously, neighbors were only notified when a project was submitted and not if changes were made to it or if it was improved. Notifications also said nothing about the appeals process prior to June 18.
Johnson applauded the changes, but said it’s not enough.
He wants the notification area expanded to at least 300 feet of homes and feels the fee for filing an appeal should be about a third of what it is now. It currently costs $640 to file an appeal of a project with an application fee below $4,500 and it costs $2,226 to appeal a project with an application fee above $4,500. Anyone can appeal a project.
“The fee is onerous, it’s higher than most other nearby communities and so it requires folks to do crowdfunding. If there’re five projects eligible for appeals then that’s in the $3,000 territory and that’s hard to scrape together,” he said. “I don’t think the cost of an appeal should be the reason people choose not to appeal a project.”
The cost of an appeal is precisely why resident Emma Johnson didn’t end up filing one when two adjacent homes of comparable size were torn down and replaced by “massive homes.”
“Appealing sets up a lot of tension and for both projects it was totally cost prohibitive [to appeal],” she said during a Planning Commission meeting late May. “We’re just barely getting by in the Bay Area and $600 isn’t a lot to some people, but for us to appeal both of those — that’s $1,200. And the house behind me is for sale now so what happens when that one comes and I need another $600 to appeal? It goes on and on.”
During that same meeting, Acting Planning Manager Diana O’Dell said the appeals fee is in place to cover some of the cost of the staff time required to process an appeal, adding that the time staff spends on appeals amounts to well above the $640 fee.
The aforementioned staff report elaborated on her point, stating “appeal fees are heavily subsidized for architectural permit appeals as the amount of staff time that is required to process is significantly more than the flat fee.”
The latest appeal fee total was approved by the City Council as part of an overall fee update for the Community Development Department, Fire Department and Police Department in 2017. Johnson said the fee used to be in the $200 range prior to that update.
In San Mateo, it costs $500 to appeal projects.
“We want to make it high enough so that people are serious about the basis of the appeal, but also not so high that people feel they have the ability to appeal a decision if they need to,” said Ron Munekawa, the city’s chief of planning.
San Mateo residents are notified within 500 feet of a project and those notices also have information about the appeals process, Munekawa said. He added that the city has a “relatively rare” process in which a meeting with immediate neighbors is organized early on in the approval process.
In Burlingame, the cost of appealing projects is significantly higher at $1,045, which is “fairly close” to the entire cost of required staff time, said Community Development Director Kevin Gardiner, adding that the notices do not include information about the appeals process. Projects are always approved by the Planning Commission and not staff in Burlingame and, upon approval of an application, the chair of the commission will read a standard text that includes information about the cost and process of appealing, Gardiner added.
In South San Francisco, it costs $833 to appeal a project, but the fee rises to $1,667 if the applicant or a homeowner’s association is appealing the decision, said Sailesh Mehra, the city’s planning manager. For decisions on single-family home projects or accessory dwelling units, neighbors are not notified upon approval.
According to the Redwood City report, the city has received three appeals in the past five years, two of which were upheld.
“Just because we haven’t had appeals or public outcry that should not be an indicator that all is well,” Johnson said.
The sorts of projects that spark conversations about appeals include single-family home proposals as large as 4,000 square feet and accessory dwelling units rising 28 feet in height, as tall as the primary home. The city is currently working on regulations to limit single-family home size to 2,500 square feet or a floor area ratio of .40 — whichever is great, and maximum accessory dwelling height be lowered from 28 feet to 20 feet.
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