Two San Mateo County Supervisors joined residents in opposing a new project to build six new townhouses along a short stretch of Woodside Road at Rutherford Avenue.
In an hour-long presentation and discussion during the April 5 meeting, the Board of Supervisors weighed conflicting concerns about the proposed construction, which would convert the existing single-family properties at 1301 and 1311 Woodside Rd. into high-density buildings.
Ultimately, the resolution to support necessary rezoning and permitting for the project was approved by a slim 3-2 vote, with Supervisor Warren Slocum and Supervisor Carole Groom dissenting.
“I'm concerned about the old oak trees, the character of the neighborhood, the visual impact,” Slocum said. “It's just a matter of, to me, privacy and the integrity of that neighborhood.”
Construction will include the demolition of two single-family residences and the building of six three-story townhouses in the county’s unincorporated Sequoia Tract. Designs include one two-bedroom unit and five four-bedroom units for a total of 18,550-square feet. Each unit will have a separate entrance, a two-car garage, a rear and front yard. All houses will be up for purchase with one designated for sale to a low, very low or extremely low-income household, per county requirements.
The project also requires rezoning from single-family (R1) to multi-family (R3), turning the 0.3-acre parcel into high-density housing.
“The two parcels are right off of Woodside Road, and they are underutilized for their location,” said Camille Leung, senior county planner, during the staff presentation. “The subdivision and additional housing units would help the county meet its regional housing needs allocation and promote a range of housing within San Mateo County.”
Nine community members spoke during the public comment, many expressing dismay over the specter of new, high-density housing and how it would affect their neighborhood.
Daniel Curran pointed to a rezoning ordinance approved unanimously by the Board in 2004 to limit housing size and density in the Selby Neighborhood and unincorporated Sequoia Tract.
“In 2004, the neighbors got together and had that parcel rezoned. The reason why is because they didn’t want to see larger and larger houses built,” Curran said. “Now one property owner wants to rezone for his own benefit and put up three-story condominiums that do not match the neighborhood. We also discovered he can legally, under the current zoning, build four houses on the property. So what is the compelling interest to rezone?”
Others voiced concerns that the new development would increase traffic and damage the tree canopies by removing large oaks, and that constituents weren’t given proper notice about the discussion.
“I have several neighbors that are very upset about this meeting today because they didn’t know about it, they weren’t notified,” Curran said. “It really feels like it’s going under the radar and being pushed through.”
Slocum shared concerns about the lack of notification. While a notice was placed in The Daily Journal, meeting county requirements, he said he didn’t think that was sufficient and that the county should have sent notices to all nearby residents.
“The neighbors claim that they didn’t get noticed about the hearing on Tuesday,” he told the Pulse. “And that’s a huge red flag because if you're trying to build trust in an area, the last thing you need to happen is for people to think that the government was trying to hide something.”
Though the proposed building heights and lot coverage are under the maximum allowed by the county, some residents worried about the loss of neighborhood character.
“The developer also noted that [the development] is suited to the neighborhood. No, it’s not. It looks like it should be somewhere downtown San Francisco,” said a resident of Rutherford Avenue identified as Peggy G. “We live in a low- to medium-density area, and our neighborhood is based on this vision. It is not protecting the visual quality of the neighborhood.”
But applicant and architect Moshe Dinar disagreed.
“It really creates a bridge between the existing commercial along Woodside Road and the single-family residential neighborhood on the opposite side,” Dinar told the Board. “The townhouses create an ability to house quite a few people and at the same time maintain a residential and historically beneficial look and vision for the project.”
Dinar told the Pulse that Woodside Road has long stopped resembling a low-density, single-family neighborhood. He added that fears about the changing character of the neighborhood were misplaced and representative of deeper issues.
“The assumption that we’re somehow bringing something foreign, it’s NIMBYism,” he said. “The development meets all the requirements for affordability…That’s a great contribution to the community.”
Much of the discussion centered around “affordability” and whether the unit designated for lower incomes would actually serve that population.
Slocum cited a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle which reported that nearly 25,000 people left the county from July 2020 to July 2021, in large part because of the high cost of living. In San Mateo County, which had the fourth biggest population decrease of all counties nationwide, the average cost of a single family home hit $2,420,438 in 2021, a 12.4% increase from the previous year, according to the San Mateo County Association of Realtors.
Given the high cost of living in San Mateo County, Slocum expressed skepticism that the new townhouse would be in the price range of someone seeking affordable housing.
County standards determine housing affordability based on income, usually ranging from 80-120% of the area median income. In a rough calculation, Leung estimated that the affordable unit would cost within the range of $1.08 to $1.89 million.
“We throw this term ‘affordable’ around,” Slocum told the Pulse. “To me, to most of us, a $2 million house is not affordable.”
However, Rose Cade, deputy director of the San Mateo County Department of Housing, said that a lower-income family might be able to take advantage of a county program like HEART, which offers down payment assistance.
“There’s very little affordable ownership product being built in our county,” she said. “It’s only one unit but for one family that would be an amazing opportunity.”
As a self-described advocate for affordable housing, Slocum said increasing density while protecting the community is a delicate balance. But he said he expects the Board to see more of these situations going forward.
“I think it’s representative of a bigger issue,” he said. “Part of the reason is that San Mateo County is basically all built out. There's not big chunks of land that can be developed. So you get these infill developments like this one. And I think that that continues, given the nature of our county.”
The development will also result in the removal of 18 trees, including 10 significant size trees of which nine are oaks. Among the larger trees, four have “no apparent problems” and two are protected, mature native coast live oak trees, according to the arborist’s report.
The project proposal, originally submitted over five years ago, was reviewed by the County Planning Commission in December 2021 before coming to the Board for approval.