Is city going to FAR with house size limits, or not FAR enough? (If you don’t get the pun, read the story)

By Elaine Goodman
Daily Post Correspondent

Faced with residents’ concerns that houses are becoming too large and out of character with their neighborhoods, the City Council in Redwood City tonight (Aug. 26) will consider a square footage limit on single-family homes.

The council could even go so far as to approve an emergency ordinance, which would take effect immediately. That way, the size limit would apply to any newly submitted applications for new homes or additions, as well as applications that have been submitted but haven’t yet been deemed complete. The so-called urgency ordinance would require six of the seven council members to vote in favor.

The size limit that’s been proposed for single-family homes is 2,500 square feet or a floor area ratio of 0.4, whichever is larger.

Floor area ratio, or FAR, is the square footage of the building divided by the size of the lot. So under the proposed 0.4 FAR limit, a house of up to 4,000 square feet could be built on a 10,000-square-foot lot.

The city’s Planning Commission recommended those size limits for single-family homes in June. But the council could decide to approve a different size limit, or implement a sliding scale with different FAR maximums for lots in various size ranges.

Another question is whether some square footage shouldn’t count toward the limit, such as space taken up by basements, unenclosed decks, or granny units, which in city-speak are called accessory dwelling units or ADUs.

Many other cities use FAR in determining the maximum size for single-family homes. In Mountain View, for example, a maximum FAR of 0.45 is allowed for lots up to 5,000 square feet, or an FAR of 0.4 for lots 10,000 square feet and larger.

Currently, Redwood City restricts lot coverage, but not FAR. A home could meet its lot coverage limit, but continue to grow through the addition or expansion of a second story. FAR takes into account the home’s total square footage.

“Our lack of FAR is pitting neighbors versus neighbors, and that just isn’t right,” Kris Johnson, a resident of Redwood City’s Mount Carmel neighborhood, told the Planning Commission in May.

Johnson pointed to data compiled by city planners, showing that in 2017 and 2018, 30 homes were proposed throughout the city with an FAR over 0.5, and many of those had an FAR of more than 0.6. Among all existing homes in the Mount Carmel neighborhood, the average home size is 1,758 square feet and the average FAR is 0.29, according to the city.

Starter homes bulldozed

“The data only reinforces what many of us see happening to our neighborhoods with our very own eyes,” Johnson said. “Profit-driven developers bulldozing what has historically been starter homes or that missing middle … and replacing them with enormous homes with no regard to the neighborhood or the neighbors.”

The Mount Carmel neighborhood has been at the center of the home-size controversy. A particular concern has been the “teardown” phenomenon, in which a developer buys a home, tears it down, and sells the larger house that replaces it. Some have even proposed turning some or all of the neighborhood into a historic district to protect the older homes.

“Many of the concerns originated in the Mount Carmel neighborhood, where neighbors were concerned that existing smaller homes were being demolished, and larger incompatible homes constructed in their place,” Redwood City Associate Planner William Chui said in a report to the City Council for tonight’s meeting.

In addition, “An unusually high number of applications have been initiated by developers, as opposed to homeowners, in recent months,” Chui said.

The Mount Carmel neighborhood is bounded by El Camino Real, Myrtle Street, Whipple Avenue and Jefferson Avenue.

The city requires a homeowner to obtain an architectural permit to build or expand a second-story addition, or to construct a new two-story home.

In 2017 and 2018, the city received 98 permit applications for new homes or second-story additions. The largest number of applications, 21, came from the Mount Carmel neighborhood. Another 14 were from Farm Hill.

Size limits may drive up prices

But some are opposed to the proposed size limits for single-family homes. Jim Tierney, principal and broker with San Mateo-based NetEquity Real Estate, said in an email to the City Council that the limits would reduce property values. That’s especially a concern for seniors living in smaller homes, he said.

Tierney said the size limits would drive up home prices, by forcing developers to enlarge houses by building basements, a more costly strategy than building a second story.

The proposed FAR would discourage telecommuting, Tierney said, since telecommuters might not be able to have a spare bedroom to use as their home office due to the size limit. That in turn could increase traffic.
And a low FAR would discourage families that live with extended family, such as aging parents, from moving to Redwood City, he said.

“A cap of 40% of the lot area or a home size of 2,500 square feet would drive away jobs and development in Redwood City,” Tierney said. “It would also do nothing to make homes more affordable.”

Some homeowners won’t be able to expand

Under the proposed size limit for single-family homes, houses that are already larger than the cap wouldn’t be allowed to add any square footage. Six percent of single-family homes in the city, or 731 houses, are in that situation, including 414 houses in Redwood Shores, 69 in Farm Hill and 62 in Mount Carmel.

“Even small additions such as adding or enlarging bathrooms or extending a kitchen would be prohibited for homes that meet or already exceed the FAR limit, even if they pose little impact to neighborhood compatibility,” Chui said in his report.

If the council went with a traditional, rather than an emergency ordinance, the size limit wouldn’t take effect until Oct. 9 at the earliest.

The city has received 13 permit applications for new homes or second-story additions that would likely be issued or deemed complete by then, and to which the new size limit therefore wouldn’t apply, according to Chui’s report.
Six are in the Woodside Plaza neighborhood, four are in Mount Carmel, two are in Eagle Hill, and one is in the Roosevelt neighborhood.