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No More Mini-Dorm Approvals Likely, But No Grounds to Revoke 2325 Park Permits

At its May 13 meeting, the Santa Clara City Council signaled that no more renovations that make single family houses suitable for use as student min-dorms will be approved, regardless of when a boarding house ordinance is passed into law. The Council found that it had no grounds legally to revoke building permits for remodeling at 2325 Park Ave. However, the Council did find it had discretionary powers to revoke its prior approval of a project on 1277 Lafayette St.

After a second study session about the proposed renovation into a five-bedroom house at 2325 Park Ave., and an exhaustive search for a basis to revoke the already-issued building permits, the Council had to accept that based on city law and precedent, it couldn’t be done legally. The permit was a “ministerial,” not a discretionary, item that had to be approved if it conformed with city code.

Several people pointed out that the driveway wasn’t set back 20 ft. from the alley it opens into. Planning Director Kevin Riley explained that the 20 ft. requirement only applied to streets, not alleys.

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The City Manager several times told neighborhood residents to be careful what they asked for. “If you drive through that alley, there are several garages that don’t meet that [20 ft setback] standard,” Fuentes said. “You need to be careful what you wish for. If you go after this property, there are several driveways and garages that don’t comply.”

“For us to apply a different standard to this property would be difficult,” he continued. “And the applicant knew that. They have lawyered up and they have looked at this issue and I guarantee you they’re going to raise a discriminatory claim. If you’re going to apply [the requirement] to them, you need to apply it to all.”

City Attorney Ren Nosky reinforced that point. “Some of the confusion is the way alleys have been treated in the Old Quad neighborhood,” he said “Some are public right-of-ways, some are not. The issue comes up a lot. This particular alley is a public right-of-way but has never been treated as such. So the practical effect of enforcing a 20 ft setback would be to create legal non-conforming uses for the entire neighborhood, which has legal implications by itself. The danger to the city is that we expose ourselves to a claim of illegal spot-zoning.”

However, the hours under the Council microscope have probably inoculated the property from ever being used as a student rental. “As I mentioned to the property owner,” said Fuentes, “we were pretty clear if this were turned into a boarding house we would use our code enforcement powers and take it back through the process…applying a multi-family standard [which it wouldn’t be able to meet].” The new budget adds three new code enforcement positions.

Also at the May 13 meeting, the Council revoked its previous approval of a similar project, 1277 Lafayette, which included adding a second living unit on the property, but will allow the owner to submit a redesign at no additional cost. This approval could be revoked because it was “discretionary.” The project required rezoning from single family (R-1) to multiple family (PD), as well as a waiver to increase the density of structures on the lot.

Despite winning the day, however, opponents of the project took the opportunity to publically vent their criticism – some of it could be described as venomous – of city government, the planning department, Santa Clara University students, developers, real estate companies, and absentee landlords.

This prompted project architect Sal Caruso, who has worked in Santa Clara for many years on historic renovations, to say, “I’m not used to being attacked or called a liar in public. I don’t even know how to answer this. I’ve come before you honorably in the past. Now I’m getting accused of lies and deceit.”

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