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Residents Express Continuing Displeasure with Finger Avenue Project

The public comment period on the project’s draft environmental report is open until Sept. 6.

After three years of an approval, a lawsuit and a rescission, a proposed nine-unit single family housing project is back in front of the city’s planning commission for review. An outside consultant has submitted its draft environmental report of the 1.69 acre Finger Avenue project, which is now open for public comment.

The proposed project would remove all existing structures and build nine two-story homes with two-car garages. The lot would have a private one-way road of 22 feet where a minimum 25 feet is normally required for a two-way street.

The city initially approved the Finger Avenue project back in October 2009, but faced a lawsuit from the Friends of Cordilleras Creek and Finger Avenue Pride Committee for alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The city rescinded the approval and the developer, McGowan Development and Friends, agreed to prepare an environmental impact report analyzing the environmental effects of the project. 

Akoni Danielson of David J. Powers & Associates, an environmental consulting agency hired by the city, gave a presentation Tuesday night of factors of the application that would need adjusting to reduce the project’s environmental impact.

“However, there are no unavoidable impacts at the end of the day,” Danielson said.

The project, as it stood, would cause significant impacts to the environment, such as more polluted storm water run-off during and after construction, according to Danielson. To mitigate this effect, the developer, Kirk McGowan, would treat and filter the water on-site before releasing it at pre-project levels into storm drains. City Engineer Paul Lewis added that the homeowners would be responsible for the water run-off after the construction was complete.

Other factors that needed mitigation were archeological resources, air quality, erosion, geology, and light and glare.

Residents were also highly concerned about the trees on the property that would face removal and possibly long-term death.

“The houses are built so close to the trees that 10 years later, their survival may not be likely,” said concerned Finger Avenue resident Dean Collins.

Commissioner Rachel Holt also expressed her long-term concerns about development near the creek.

“I wouldn’t place homes in the 100 year flood hazard area,” she said. “I’d feel more comfortable if it were out of the flood zone.”

Adhering to the city’s mandated 25-foot setback from the creek would also provide a number of protections for the creek’s water quality, said Richard Izmirian of “Friends of Cordilleras Creek.” It could protect the habitat living there and prevent erosion of the creek.

Dan Ponti of the “Finger Avenue Pride Committee” submitted an alternative design that he says would not cut down any trees and meet the 25-foot distance requirement from Cordilleras Creek.

Ponti said that the alternatives the consultant examined were insufficient because of their inadequacy as true alternatives.

“They’re just strawmen to make the actual application look better,” he said.

He said the project applicant had not budged in his insistence on exactly nine units with yards facing the creek.

“The project objectives are inappropriately narrow,” Ponti said. “It might as well demand that the houses be painted green with red roofs.”

Other Finger Avenue residents agreed on the developer’s unwillingness to compromise in his nine-unit design.

“The developer has penciled out the number of homes he must cram on this land to maximize his project,” wrote residents Terry Blanchard and Linda Vetter in a letter to the city. “If he would only replace the six homes that are there now with six new reasonable sized homes with reasonable off Finger Ave. parking, we would predict much, if not all, of the opposition to his plans would go away.”

Insufficient parking on an already narrow street was another of Blanchard’s and Vetter’s concerns. They said the cars spill over from , and the two even suffered a smashed side-view mirror on their car, possibly from another driver trying to squeeze through the narrow street.

Ponti said the consultant never drafted an alternative design with a fewer number of units, so he designed one himself. He believes his design would fit more with the unique character of the Finger Avenue neighborhood. The semi-rural northern half and more urban southside half create a juxtaposition that makes the neighborhood unique, Ponti said.

This proposed project would make both sides of the street match, a “degradation of [the neighborhood’s] character,” he said.   

The city’s Historic Resources Advisory Committee will review the project in two weeks and make a recommendation to the planning commission on the project’s cultural resources.

Once the comment period closes, the consultant will head back to the drafting process and present a final environmental impact report to the planning commission for a final decision.

Dan Ponti August 17, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Good article, Stacy. I do need to clarify the issue of the roadway, however, because Staff's comments to the Commission, which you reported accurately, did not fully explain the exception that the applicant is requesting. The proposed private loop road has total right-of-way width of 22'. There is no sidewalk or walkway as exists elsewhere in our neighborhood. Instead the road will have a 3" high apron of 4' or 5' width within the road for pedestrians to use. Fire codes require a 20' pavement width, so they and other large vehicles (eg. garbage trucks) will likely need to drive on the walkway apron. The city standard for private roads requires a 31' right-of-way - 25' pavement width plus a conventional 6' wide sidewalk plus curb. The 25' pavement width is to allow an adequate backup aisle for vehicles to enter driveways. So, the developer is asking for a reduction in the roadway width of 9 ft, or a greater than 1/3 reduction in the standard, not 3 ft as implied in your article. City codes classify any road with a right-of-way of less than 30 ft as an alley, which can only be used as secondary access to homes. The proposed narrow road is the only access to the new homes. The width reduction is necessary for the developer to build 9 lots on the site. Under the planned development codes, exceptions cannot be granted to increase unit density. Therefore the precedent set by granting this exception is far-reaching, and is, in our view, a violation of city codes and policies.
Nancy Krosse August 17, 2011 at 07:39 PM
I am so relieved to read that Commissioner Rachel Holt is concerned about such a huge development being built so closely to Cordilleras Creek. Building nine two-story homes on 1.69 acres is senseless. To build them so close to the creek is foolish.
Chris Manton August 18, 2011 at 05:53 AM
The number of homes on the lot does not seem crazy. 9 homes on 1.69 acres is a little more than 8000 sq feet per lot, which is a pretty reasonably sized lot, and consistent with much of the rest of RWC. For comparison, a good chunk of the flats of San Carlos are at the bare minimum required by code of 5000 sq feet per lot. And as usual, follow the money. The assessment for simply the undeveloped property for that area, I'm guessing, is about 1 million per quarter acre, which puts the assessed land value of around 6 million. So the assessed value of each property in a 9 unit setup is 666K versus 1M in a 6 unit setup. This is money the developer does not want to leave on the table. I also think environmental concerns tend to be abused to bolster your own opinion. I don't know enough about the environmental impact to the creek to comment on that. Further, I think that this is the tip of the iceberg with other Edgewood properties that may be subdivided as they come onto the market and assessed property tax bills continue to skyrocket. Think of Manor Court, the development that was put behind Edgewood Manor. Having said that, I live close by and my personal opinion would keep as is, or develop one or two "mansions" like on the north bank of Edgewood road, but I would wager those are unlikely outcomes.
Dan Ponti August 18, 2011 at 03:03 PM
Chris - the 1.69 acres includes Cordilleras Creek, which can't be built on, and you need a street to access the properties, too. Looking at the net lot size, the average lot is barely over the minimum 6000 sq. ft, for this district. All of the lots are built at the maximum 40% building coverage or higher in the case of 2 creek side lots. 6 of the 9 homes are at the maximum height limit and the developer wants setback exceptions to build as close as 3 ft from adjacent properties. 4 homes are proposed to be built within the City's 25 ft creek setback - this will be the first exception to that law. Yes, CEQA can be used as a hammer, but if you've followed this project, the hammer is being used by the developer. During the initial environmental review, the city's consultant found potential impacts that required some project modifications to mitigate. The developer didn't want to do it. If this occurs, CEQA requires an EIR to further evaluate. The developer didn't want to do an EIR either. So, political pressure came to bear and ultimately the City ordered its consultant to reverse their findings. I'm not making this up; these documents were obtained in the lawsuit. Now with the EIR, many of the requested evaluations weren't done. Seems that if the answer is inconvenient, then don't ask the question. This IS the tip of the iceberg. It's not whether large lots will be subdivided, but how. Edgewood Park is not Redwood Shores. This project is bad precedent - we can do better.
Chris Manton August 19, 2011 at 05:22 AM
Dan, Thanks for your clear and concise feedback. I've learned quite alot in a day or so about the details of this project. I've always been puzzled by the application of city code exceptions, for example, San Carlos has it's own Exception Design Control Committee to *not* enforce the rules for specific projects.

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