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Referring to themselves as the 'poverty pocket' of Atherton, some residents facing upzoning threaten legal action

Some residents accused the council of trying to create a 'Redwood City extension'
An Atherton resident speaks out against plans to upzone 17 lots along El Camino Real at a City Council meeting Jan. 18. Screenshot.

Wearing red shirts saying "#Not Going Anywhere," Atherton residents who live along El Camino Real told the Atherton City Council on Wednesday, Jan. 18, that they were surprised to be targeted in the town's housing element draft.

The council voted 4-1 last week, with Rick DeGolia opposed, to rezone 17 lots — totaling about 6.7 acres — along the western border of El Camino Real from Stockbridge Avenue to Cebalo Lane to allow denser housing construction of up to 20 units per acre. The vote also directs the town to start a program to encourage the consolidation of parcels to allow for low-income housing units.

The addition of the El Camino lots came after hearing feedback from consultants, local housing advocates and some residents. The council opted to add multifamily housing back into its state-mandated 2023-31 housing element plan, which requires the town to plan for 348 units over the next eight years.

"We, the victims of your dealmaking, have been left out of the process," Pam Silvaroli, one of the owners of the 17 lots, told the council on Jan. 18. "I am in the process of hiring an attorney. And we will prove that you have not operated in good faith. We will fight to the bitter end on this, and I can assure you that all the wrongdoing will be revealed. It's going to be a very painful journey for all included, so get ready for the storm."

We will fight to the bitter end on this, and I can assure you that all the wrongdoing will be revealed. It's going to be a very painful journey for all included, so get ready for the storm

-Pam Silvaroli, Atherton resident

She alleged that the town can't say in good faith say to the state that the parcels will be redeveloped because Atherton property is too expensive to fulfill the state's low-income housing demands, and because the homeowners don't want to move.

She was one of several residents who threatened legal action against the town if the lots are rezoned.

Resident Donna Chandra told council members: "This is personal, if this was your house, your kids' house, would you think this was fair and good faith?" She asked them to go to bed tonight and think about how unfair this was. "We're very upset."

The town notes that the properties are highlighted on a map in a Jan. 12 letter to residents showing what was being considered for inclusion in the housing element as lots that could be upzoned for the development of multifamily affordable units.

Typically, when a jurisdiction rezones occupied land from its existing use to another use, the existing use is deemed "legal-non-conforming." This means whatever is currently there is allowed to stay, subject to some limitations, including a prohibition on rebuilding from scratch or building additions. It does not mean that current owners or occupants will be forced to move out.

One neighbor, Stan Hsu, said he is "keenly aware that the larger and wealthier cohorts of Atherton" consider the corridor "poverty pocket" of Atherton. Another resident also referred to the area as the "poverty pocket" of town and accused the town of trying to create a "Redwood City extension."

The average estimated home value of the 17 lot is $3.9 million, according to Zillow. At least two homes in the neighborhood sold for about $4 million each. Most of the sites are under 1 acre, with several being about 0.3 acres. The average home value in Atherton is $7.5 million, according to Zillow.

"We currently represent diversity with properties already on the smaller side," Shu said.

One neighbor was so emotional about the topic that she had to step away from the microphone in Council Chambers and have her husband speak on her behalf.

Atherton plans to rezone portions west of El Camino Real for multi-family housing in its housing element. Courtesy town of Atherton.
Atherton plans to rezone portions west of El Camino Real for multi-family housing in its housing element. Courtesy town of Atherton.

It is unclear what the plans are for 1 Gresham Lane, a 0.32-acre lot in the proposed rezoning. Its owner has applied for a lot split through Senate Bill 9, the so-called duplex law, that became effective last year.

Town Manager George Rodericks said that if the lot is split by the time the town completes the upcoming element draft, he'd add both lots into the upzoned area.

"One never knows what a developer might choose to do," he said.

Council response

Vice Mayor Diana Hawkins-Manuelian said there's a misconception that "we picked these properties because they're smaller or lower-income compared to other areas." She said it's because they're in a high traffic corridor and it's already next to density or commercial property.

"I knew whoever was going to be impacted by this was going to be blindsided," said Council member Rick DeGolia, who voted against the El Camino Real housing plan last week. "People don't pay attention until it starts to directly impact you."

About a dozen times, a frustrated Mayor Bill Widmer had to tell residents to stop interrupting the council and staff discussion after the public comment period was closed.

Council member Elizabeth Lewis noted that she knows it's an emotional issue but that the town "not putting the whole housing element on the backs of these few parcels along El Camino."

"It takes a lot to stand up and speak your heart," she acknowledged.

Rodericks said the El Camino corridor has been under consideration for upzoning since February 2021, so it's not a new concept.

"This really was not done in the dark of night," Lewis agreed.

Hawkins-Manuelian suggested the council create an overlay all along El Camino Real so it's not as targeted.

Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders said there's concern about the overlay concept because the state housing department has been more supportive of rezoning.

Rodericks told The Almanac, the Redwood City's sister publication, in a Jan. 19 email that the state's Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) is focused on the likelihood of development occurring.

"It's not written anywhere in the law that rezoning is required or preferred over an overlay approach; but HCD does require agencies evaluate the likelihood of development," he said. "In HCD's unofficial opinion, if an agency uses overlays, the agency is providing the property owner the ability to choose between remaining as a single-family home or upzoning."

Need for consolidation of lots to qualify for affordable housing

One hiccup, according to town planners, is that the lot sizes along El Camino Real are fairly small compared to others in town. Most of the sites are under an acre.

"Any site less than half an acre cannot be included in affordable housing," said town consultant Diana Elrod. The town would have to aggregate the sites in some way.

Upcoming housing deadline

The town faces consequences if it doesn't make the state's Jan. 31 deadline for a compliant housing plan.

Rodericks explained that the town could be fined $100,000 to $600,000 per month for having an uncertified housing element, and face lawsuits from developers and housing advocates.

The town could also lose its land use and planning powers, said Town Attorney Mona Ebrahimi.

There's also the so-called builder's remedy, which allows for residential projects to move forward even if they do not comply with local development standards, potentially taking effect come Feb. 1. With the builder's remedy, cities and towns could be required to approve any project that has 20% of its units designated for affordable or low-income households, or 100% moderate-income households, even if the project exceeds the zoning and general plan density requirements.

"We're at the 12th hour and there are consequences: we're facing lawsuits, the builder's remedy," said Hawkins-Manuelian.

We're at the 12th hour and there are consequences: we're facing lawsuits, the builder's remedy.

-Diana Hawkins-Manuelian, Vice Mayor

Widmer noted that the town already tried to primarily focus on concentrating housing at Menlo College and through development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in people's backyards, but the state told the town in its feedback letter in October that it needs to include multifamily housing to have its housing element approved.

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