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There have been rumblings lately – louder than usual rumblings – over the Architectural Site and Review Board and how well and how timely they do their job. There was a training session earlier in the year that exposed a fair amount of confusion among ASRB members (starting on page 15), about the ASRB role. Staff pointed that included pointing out to the members that it is not their job to pass judgment on how many square feet a house can be, although ASRB members immediately got to work trying to figure out code language to allow just that – i.e., “mass and bulk” or “specific constraints of the lot that preclude maxing out on allowable square footage.”

Despite this training effort, the rumblings have only gotten louder, with the ASRB taking more and more time to review projects, for example – seeing the same project up to FOUR times BEFORE it sending it on to the Planning Commission. With building activity exploding, the ASRB is holding up to three meetings a month and is still falling behind. The ASRB is tasked with a big workload that they’re seemingly making bigger, getting into the weeds with little details and often failing to see the big picture, at a real cost in dollars and time to COWs. The Board clearly is struggling with what they see as conflicts between the the General Plan, the Woodside Municipal Code and the Design Guidelines.

It was with this background that the Town COWncil recently held a special meeting with the ASRB. At the meeting, one ASRB member expressed his frustration with how overbroad he feels the ASRB’s attention has gotten, telling people that their house is too big or that it is too intensive a use even if the Code makes it is permissible on what he characterized as relatively unconstrained lots. He said he has heard from architects that they, “don’t know what’s okay to build in Woodside anymore.” He later said that some on the ASRB say that maximum house sizes “shouldn’t” be allowed – but as he pointed out, that’s what the Code allows. He said that the ASRB gets lengthy discussions about “too big,” “too massive,” “too intense,” – saying “that all we say.”

Other ASRB members strongly disagreed, saying that there should be MORE restrictions, and clearer language, to reduce building size from what’s allowed in the Code on “sensitive” or “constrained” lots. They said that people (shockingly!) look at the Code and believe that defines what they can build in Woodside – and these ASRB members were of the opinion that that’s not correct.

Another ASRB member noted that several times lately at formal reviews - done after perhaps several conceptual reviews and which should really be a rubber stamp at that point – new substantial issues are brought up by other ASRB members to the surprise of homeowners.

The COWncil members in turn expressed their frustration with the process as it is functioning, or dys-functioning, right now. Peter Mason noted that the idea behind the conceptual reviews was to get initial ideas and get a project going in the right direction with what he called “Woodside design.” He said it was meant to be a quick review upfront for direction, and that the ASRB needs to make sure it’s not asking too much of applicants. Interestingly, Peter also claimed that if a project doesn’t get a 7-0 vote at the ASRB then “something’s wrong” (a startling statement at a time of noted divisiveness on the ASRB.) As Dave Tanner noted, people consider being approved as being approved. Mayor Dave Burow stated he’s “very troubled” that the ASRB spends it’s time making such judgments about house size, saying it’s a tortuous process and that he didn’t want the ASRB to decide that houses should be smaller than what is in the code.

As a result of the meeting, COWncil and Staff agreed to move forwards on possible Code changes related to basement size and reducing grading allowances – with COWncil member Tanner asserting that there should be a rule that says that homeowners can’t build tunnels or go beyond the edges of their buildings with basements. The work plan also included the idea of limiting house size (maximum floor area) on those so-called sensitive or constrained lots although, as is often pointed out at the ASRB itself, “every site is unique.” Is this a stealth way of reducing house sizes throughout Woodside, without labeling it as such in order to avoid the outcry that would result?

So, scary stuff. You can check it all out on MooTube. It’s definitely worth watching for a grim picture for Woodside.

The Town COWncil held their regular meeting on June 24th, with all COWncil members present (albeit with some a little late).

The COWncil approved the consent calendar, including $150,000 to pay for an outside company to do engineering consulting work in Town, to examine all of the over 200 culverts and inlet structures of the Town storm drainage system. In past rainy seasons Town-maintained storm drains have failed and flooded, requiring costly repairs. As the majority of these drains are over 60 years old, the Town is concerned that more will start to fail, and it could cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars if they fail in the more catastrophic ways. It is better to fixed them before they fail. The report is due back in October. We will see what sort of bill we will be on the hook for in order to make the repairs.

Then it was time for another exciting episode of Tree Court! The Town COWncil, for the fifth time in three years, heard from a resident who cut down significant trees without a permit, and appealed to the COWncil to reduce the hefty fine. As always, the resident plead ignorance of the law, stating that he had been told that the Bay Laurel trees he had cut down were bad for oak trees since they carry and spread Sudden Oak Death and did not realize he needed a permit. The mitigating circumstances this time were the obviously well-maintained state of the resident’s forest, the fact that he had sprayed his oaks for SOD, and that the area was still well-forested and that the tree removal had not opened up any views or building sites for the homeowner. What would YOU have decided?

The COWncil reduced the fine by 50%, as it has in the past, but not until after a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The COWncil was vocally upset that they keep seeing these cases, although Town Manager Kevin Bryant provided some context, reporting that more than 100 tree-removal permits were granted in the first six months of this year, suggesting only a 1% scofflaw rate. Several of the COWncil members – notably Ron Romines - were in favor of charging the full fine to the resident, seemingly out of frustration for the fact that they keep seeing these cases. COWncil members Shanahan and Gordon noted how the COWncil had acted in previous cases. They have reduced the fine by taking circumstances into account, so it would be improper to act differently in this case. He eventually convinced the majority of their colleagues.

As a member of the public pointed out, however, the impression the COWncil leaves is of deciding these cases on a whim. Mayor Burow pushed back on this, saying it wasn’t, but in a hearing when COWncil member Kasten stated that there “were days when you feel kinda cranky” (about seeing these cases) and other COWncil members, upset by previous go-rounds, pondered throwing the book at this resident, it’s hard to seriously argue with the whim label. But one wonders why so many COWS don’t seem to know the tree removal rules which are certainly not intuitive. Staff should do period out reachto make sure the all COWs were aware of the rules.

One good thing did come out of this case, with the COWncil having a discussion on the purpose of the tree ordinance – what is it for? Is it to save every significant tree (as is indeed written into the law, as Ron pointed out), or is to stop wholesale clear cutting, or to create a healthy forest and canopy? As several COWncil members pointed out, the ordinance has been very successful in stopping the clear cutting rampages of a decade ago. The COWncil then decided to have a joint meeting with the Sustainability and Conservation Committee (who originally created the language for the tree ordinance 8 years ago), to learn more about the origins of the law and to discuss possible changes to it.

The COWncil then moved to approve the 2014-2015 Town budget, after a short discussion.

After that came the fun part of the meeting, with PG&E requesting a permanent easement under part of Barkley Fields for the movement of a big gas transmission pipe that runs all the way up the Peninsula. The pipe was laid in 1935 (!) and isn’t wide enough for modern in-line inspection equipment, and runs under neighborhoods in Woodside and Redwood City. While the COWncil was generally in agreement that the easement had to be granted, they were apparently shocked to discover at the meeting that a second big gas transmission line ALSO runs under these neighborhoods, with no plans to move it. The COWncilmembers claimed no knowledge of this prior to the meeting, while Staff has been negotiating with PG&E for weeks or months on the issue so who knew about the second line, and when?

The discussion turned into a bit of interrogation, with COWncil members and residents bringing up the San Bruno disaster and other recent woes like the hydro-testing leak in Woodside a few years ago, and the panic in San Carlos recently. There was stark disbelief over a claim that PG&E had recently been recognized as an industry leader in safety from Lloyds of London, though apparently it is true. As Council member Barbara Gordon pointed out, however, it’s going to take a long time to rebuild trust in PG&E, and all the critical infrastructure replacements identified after the San Bruno explosion have yet to be finished.

With corporate representatives from PG&E present trying to gracefully defend themselves. It is definitely worth watching on MooTube. Two residents (one who’s bedroom window is four feet from a 24” gas line) implored PG&E to move both lines at the same time, but PG&E made it clear they had absolutely no plans to do that, stating that the second line is safe and had been inspected. Since the COWncil did not really have any leverage to demand both lines be moved, they granted the easement.

The COWncil did ask for the following, and hopefully PG&E will follow through:

• Safety data on all pipes in Woodside, that can be put on the Town website
• An open house with PG&E reps, where the citizenry can ask question
• An informational display at Barkley Fields about the project

The work at Barkley Fields will be done in July, in the part of the baseball field farthest away from the parking lot. We’re certainly glad that this aging gas transmission line is being moved, but we sure hope that PG&E’s records and testing are accurate with regards to this second line running so very close to Woodside homes.

The COWncil meeting wrapped up shortly after.