Noe Valley Voice March 2002

'Monster' Home Legislation Hopes to Scare Off Oversize Development

By Corrie M. Anders

Thirty-one years ago, Jerry and Susan McDonald gave up their North Beach apartment and purchased an inexpensive, Victorian-era cottage on Clipper Street. The one-story home was small -- around 900 square feet -- but comfortable enough for the work-at-home couple. On nice sunny days, their backyard often became an al fresco office.

Then the trouble started. For the past year, the couple has been embroiled in a battle with their next-door neighbors, who are seeking city approval for a major expansion of their property.

If the neighbors prevail, according to the McDonalds, the one-story addition would dwarf the McDonalds' cottage and, in the process, destroy their privacy, reduce their views, and block the sun in their backyard. "Once it's done, our light is gone. It will shade our yard for nine months completely -- and we'll have no sun after 1," claims Jerry McDonald.

It is a contention the neighbors, Laurie and Ed Bell, strongly deny. "That's not true," said Laurie Bell, a floral designer. "They don't have anything to support their side."

She added that one reason she and her husband wanted to expand the house they bought some 20 years ago was to enable her 91-year-old mother to move in with them. But her mother has died during the yearlong effort to build, she said. Also, there is only one bath for the family, which includes a teenager, and the kitchen is 18 years old. "I think I deserve a nice kitchen," said Bell.

Such disputes over the size of newly constructed homes and remodeling projects -- which are often out of character with surrounding properties -- have become commonplace during the hot real estate market of the past few years.

But they may become the exception. Supervisor Mark Leno soon will try to tame "monster" homes with legislation that would place severe height and size limits on new residential construction throughout much of District 8. The legislation also has historical preservation and anti-demolition elements. A softer side of Leno's get-tough plan would reward developers and homeowners who include affordable units in their projects.

To make it easier for neighbors to visualize the actual height of proposed projects, the legislation also would require owners to erect temporary "story poles" that would mark the roofline of the new construction.

Leno plans to introduce the legislation this month to the full Board of Supervisors after it undergoes a final buffing -- including review by the city attorney's office, said Leno aide Nathan Purkiss.

The proposal is the culmination of a yearlong effort by a task force comprised of architects, urban planners, and representatives from neighborhood groups such as Friends of Noe Valley. It would take away much of the Planning Department's discretionary oversight and establish uniform guidelines for construction.

"It's really a new way to go about development in the neighborhood," said Friends President Dave Monks. "We know there will be growth, and we want to make sure it's done in a way that's contextual and respects history and surrounding structures."

The Voice obtained a draft of the legislation. It would amend the city planning code by creating the Eastern Foothills Special Use District. The district would include most of Noe Valley, Glen Park, the Castro District, and the western edge of the Mission District -- middle-class neighborhoods with a rich collection of Edwardians and Victorians dating back to the late 1800s, interspersed with small apartment buildings and 1950s bungalows.

Under the proposal, homeowners and developers could build, based on a complex formula that would force them to stay within strictly defined heights and size limits. The formula would vary depending on the neighborhood.

Take height, for example. In Noe Valley, the city planning code currently permits residential construction up to a maximum height of 40 feet.

Under the proposed changes, the height of new construction would be based on the average height of the two adjacent buildings. But the legislation also sets a peak height of 30 to 35 feet, depending on the slope of the lot. That would prevent new construction from exceeding the higher of either the peak height or the average height of the two adjacent buildings.

Owners also would face tough limits on how much living space could be included in new homes or additions -- as well as how much of the lot could be utilized. The amount of living space would be based on the 15 adjacent properties. The largest and smallest homes would be deleted from the equation, and the new construction would be based on the average size of the remaining 13 homes.

Single-family homes in Noe Valley no longer would be able to cover up to 75 percent of a residential lot, typically 25 feet wide and 100 feet long. Owners would have to be content with using one of two approaches: build out 55 percent of the lot depth, or to the average building depth of the adjacent two properties.

The changes also would provide incentives to encourage a diverse mix of housing. In most of Noe Valley, developers would be allowed extra space if they were to build two units instead of a single large home. And they'd get a bonus of additional square footage if they were willing to make the second unit a smaller -- and presumably less expensive -- rental, instead of two equal-size flats.

"In this way, we're trying to encourage people to build more and affordable housing," said Bruce Bonacker, a San Francisco architect and a task force member.

Older homes would undergo greater scrutiny before they could be demolished or radically altered. For any building 45 years or older, the staff of the Planning Department would need to conduct a study to assess whether the property has historical or architectural significance. The Planning Commission could use the study information in its deliberation on the permit application. Applicants could appeal the study findings to the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board.

"We ask that the planners have all of these things in front of them to determine if the proposed project is detrimental to something of quality that the city might want to retain," said Bonacker.

The legislation would redefine "major alterations" to include significant modifications "to the original portions of the building in the front...and/or removing 50 percent or more of the back of the building," said Bonacker.

"Because the proposed district is in an area that didn't burn in the [1906 earthquake and] fire and developed soon after the fire, there are a lot of very old buildings in this district," Bonacker said. "As a result, we'd like to preserve as many as possible and encourage people to do so."

Story poles, actually 2 x 4 pieces of lumber, would be set up at crucial positions to define the limits of a proposed building or addition. To denote a third-floor addition, for example, a story pole would be erected at each corner of the roof and the position highlighted with yellow tape, a red flag, paint, or similar marker.

"The public would have a chance to see the proposed mass of the roof and comment on it" at public forums, Bonacker said.

Though they have created a great deal of anxiety, neighborhood activists could not quantify how many "monster" homes have gone up recently in Noe Valley. Monks guesstimated the figure at 15 to 20. Before the real estate market started to retreat last year, city notices informing Noe Valley residents and civic groups of permit applications were numbering about 10 a day, said Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors. And many of the applications were for large projects.

In any event, many Noe Valley residents and neighborhood leaders lauded the proposed changes as long overdue.

"We have had real difficulties over the past few years in terms of what these developers do to the neighborhood due to the sheer size of their developments," said Rosen, also a task force representative. "They tend to build as big as they can ... to the limit of the laws, whether it's the right thing to do or not."

Claire Pilcher, a land use attorney and task force member, said the proposed changes would set uniform standards and curtail case-by-case discretionary reviews by a planning commission some critics contend is too pro-development. "People were having to fight each individual battle and learning [the process] from scratch -- and they weren't getting anywhere," said Pilcher.

But the proposed legislation doesn't sit well with the Bells. "I don't think the community is going to support Mr. Leno on this. I don't think people in Noe Valley will feel it's fair legislation. We feel the 40-foot limit is fair -- and that's essentially what we're attempting to build up to," said Laurie Bell.

In the long-running squabble with the McDonalds, she noted that her family's plans had repeatedly gained approval from city officials. "We've been through discretionary review and won unanimously. Then we went to the appeals board and won unanimously -- the reason being that we're totally within the scope of what is allowable."

The draft legislation, of course, proposes to reduce what is allowable. But even if it passes, it "might be too late for us," said Jerry McDonald as he looked out over his backyard, filled with ferns, succulents, and fruit trees.

He and his wife have exhausted all of their City Hall appeals save an 11th-hour plea for a rehearing scheduled this month before the Board of Permit Appeals. So far, the couple have spent $7,000 in legal, consultant, and architectural fees to try to get their neighbor's project scaled back.

"We're not afraid of development," McDonald said. "[But] we think the lines should be drawn when they start to diminish our lives to [our neighbor's] benefit. We have property rights as well."

Proposed 'Eastern Foothills' Boundaries

The proposed Eastern Foothills Special Use District would include most of the District 8 supervisorial district. The special use area is bounded generally by Market Street, Duboce Avenue, Frederick Street, Ashbury Street, Twin Peaks Boulevard, O'Shaughnessy Boulevard, Congo Street, Joost Avenue, San Jose Avenue, Cesar Chavez Street, and up to but not including Valencia Street.