Planning commissioners get snippy during meeting on mother-in-law units

Daily Post Staff Writer

A nearly three-hour Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission discussion last night about the construction of in-law units yielded minor changes to a set of recommendations for City Council review, but not without some tense snipes between commissioners.

Commissioner Michael Alcheck accused Commissioner Przemek Gardias of “learning about the (city planning) code on the dais right now” and proposing amendments that he had not prepared in writing beforehand, to which Gardias responded that Alcheck, too, sometimes learns as he goes.

Two of Gardias’ motions passed despite sole dissenting votes from Alcheck.

The commission voted 4-1 to recommend that council consider lowering height limits to preserve neighbors’ privacy and natural light exposure by lowering what city planners call the “daylight plane” from 14 feet above the ground to 11 feet.

An invisible tent

The daylight plane creates what the city calls an “invisible tent” intended to preserve neighbors’ privacy and exposure to natural light.

They then voted 4-1 to allow some architectural features other than walls, like roofs, to extend into the 6-foot setback from the property line.

Gardias’ amendments were added to a list of recommendations for council, which prevent basements in the required rear yard setback and to include homes permitted before Jan. 1, 2017 in the properties that get development flexibility for sites that are near or at their limit of development.

In many cases, the space needed for an accessory dwelling unit would be exempt.

Alcheck came armed with six amendments, none of which passed.

Low-income tenants

One of Alcheck’s proposals was to subsidize the structures for homeowners who rent them out to low-income tenants.

Alcheck had proposed waiving all fees related to the construction of an accessory dwelling unit, including planning, school impact and building permit fees, in exchange for a 15-year commitment to keep the unit leased at below market rate to a tenant on the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing’s waiting list.

“I wanted people to be empowered to sort of seize the opportunity here,” Alcheck said. He said that homeowners would be mandated to rent their home out to a low-income tenant at least 10 months out of the year, giving them a two-month window to find a new tenant, and could pull out of the program by paying the fees.
Commissioner Asher Waldfogel called the proposal “an interesting idea.”

Idea called complicated

Alcheck reasoned that homeowners wouldn’t go for the program unless they had the freedom to interview and select tenants, rather than being assigned the tenant who had been on the list the longest, which raised concerns about fair housing laws.

“It sounds overly complicated to me. I worry about getting to select from the list of people on the Palo Alto Housing waiting list,” Commissioner Doria Summa said. “It seems like a nightmare of complications in terms of legal and practical.”

When Vice Chair Sue Monk suggested the commission move on from the proposal, Alcheck offered another idea, to train architects on the city code regarding accessory dwelling units and allow homeowners who hire those architects to go through a “streamlined” process when it comes to permitting.

“At the end of the day what we want to do is create a supply of affordable units,” Alcheck said. “Making it easier to build doesn’t mean they’ll be available for people who need help.”


  1. Get real! How many people are going to build an accessory unit on their property and then turn it over to Section 8 tenants? And once you rent it to somebody on these lists, and they turn out to be a bad tenant, imagine how difficult it will be to evict them!!!

  2. 6 foot setbacks are 6 feet over what the City of Los Altos is proposing! There the staff are eliminating side setbacks for granny units which can be as tall as 12 feet and as big as 1200 sq ft. To “screen such structures for privacy” the proposed ordinance “requires fences that are at least as tall as the structure” for privacy i.e., 12 feet.

    Other proposals: eliminating owner occupancy in either main residence or granny unit, no min lot size requirement, maintaining the one-car covered parking per lot, no requirement the granny units need to be for affordable housing, etc.

    Imagine 12 foot granny unit structures, as big as 1200 sq ft, on the property line with 12-14-16 foot foot fences to screen them!
    Imagine both main residence and granny units rented out with the property owner living elsewhere, maybe in Cuba smoking cigars!
    Imagine 3 or 4 or more cars for the occupants of those structures with all except one on the street!
    Imagine all that on lots regardless of whether they are 8K or 10K sq ft!
    Imagine the renters of those structures quarreling with each other or making a mess…and you and other neighbors can’t reach the property owner…and having to reel in the police every time!

    To justify their proposals staff and some council members, notably the Mayor, are trotting out lame and false excuses: “State has tied our hands…we have no choice…housing crisis”

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