By Emily Mibach
Daily Post Staff Writer
Longtime Atherton Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis, during a meeting when residents were complaining loudly about a state mandate for 348 more apartments, said Sacramento doesn’t understand that Atherton’s special.
“We need to express and explain the specialness of Atherton while telling our story to succeed in reducing their expectations of us and embracing the fact we are this special community,” Lewis said during Wednesday’s (April 19) council meeting.
Atherton is struggling to find locations for 348 homes as part of the state-required Housing Element, something the town has been working on for about two years.
The Housing Element is an eightyear plan by each city on how it will zone for more homes to fulfill a state quota to ease the state’s housing crisis.
Lewis walked through the history of Atherton, that it was once a set of large estates and working farms, including the estate of former San Francisco Mayor Thomas Selby, who had almond trees – leading to the name Alemendral.
She noted that this is not the first time the town has felt the crunch of adding more housing. After the heads of the Flood and Selby estates died, their heirs subdivided up the properties to make up the lots Athertonians live on today. The town’s population went from 2,500 in 1945 to 7,700 in 1960, higher than it is today, Lewis said.
“Last housing cycle we had 91 units to be planned for and built, (this is) a monumental task. We need to do a really really good job of addressing those questions (from the state) and telling our story of how we got here and why Atherton is special,” Lewis said.
One of the reasons that Atherton is struggling to find places for apartments is that, unlike other cities on the Mid-Peninsula that can convert commercial sites into housing, Atherton only has homes, parks, schools and government buildings on its land.
Residents at Wednesday’s meeting wanted the town to take a more aggressive approach with the state.
“If you’re not comfortable fighting for us, then you should step down,” resident Mike Brown said.
The town has struggled to find places for multifamily housing, such as apartments or townhouses. Anytime a location is suggested, residents show up en masse to council meetings to protest the location.
Steph Curry objected to one of the only multifamily projects in the town’s Housing Element – for 23 Oakwood Boulevard. That project is estimated to bring in 16 new homes. The council begrudgingly kept the project in previous iterations of the Housing Element in an attempt to satisfy the call from the state for more multifamily housing.
The state was not satisfied with the meager offerings for multifamily housing, as stated in its 12-page April 4 letter to town officials.
The council Wednesday went through a list of criteria for properties to meet in order to be included in a future draft of the Housing Element.
However, residents protested some of the suggested criteria such as the inclusion of properties within a half mile of a transit route along major roads such as El Camino, Alameda de las Pulgas, Marsh Road, Middlefield Road or Valparaiso Avenue.
Pam Silvaroli said her home is being unfairly put into the mix for homes that could be redeveloped. She said her home is close enough to El Camino Real where it could be redeveloped under the guidelines. She suggested having a lot size requirement on the council’s list for properties to be considered.
“I have a bullseye on my back,” Silvaroli said.
Widmer tried to point out to Silveroli that her property would not show up on any list since she doesn’t want to redevelop it, she again reiterated her fear of her home being redeveloped.
The council decided to only allow homes within a quarter of a mile of a transit route along El Camino Real to be included in the criteria.
One of the criteria, however, is that the property owner has to concent to having their property on the list.
Residents, and council members, though don’t like the idea of zoning for apartments or town houses.
“There are other cities to live in,” said Councilman Rick DeGolia.
“We need affordable housing for people who work on properties and at schools in town. We don’t need clusters of multi-family housing,” DeGolia said.
Some residents at Wednesday’s meeting also resurrected the idea of suing the state over the Housing Element.
“You need a backup plan, and what (goes) in the backup plan. I think you need to think about litigation,” said Carol Flaherty.
Resident Walter Sleeth suggested the city join up with other similar towns such as Los Gatos and Saratoga to sue the state, noting that Atherton can’t be the only town that doesn’t want new development in it.
Mayor Bill Widmer said the town can’t be kicking sand in the state’s face and the town ought to continue work on the Housing Element to reduce the risk of any builder’s remedy cases from popping up around town. If a city fails to meet the state’s Housing Element deadline, developers can take advantage of what the law calls the “builder’s remedy,” which allows them to ignore local zoning rules and build bigger housing complexes than what would be normally allowed.
Widmer also suggested to residents that instead of collecting money for a lawsuit against the state, they should raise money so that Menlo College can build the 60 apartments it says it would like to in the town’s Housing Element.
The college does not have the funds for the project.