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Variance Brings Larger Issues Into Crisp Focus

The Santa Clara City Council overturned a Planning Commission ruling denying a variance for a single-family home, going against urging from the City Attorney and a recommendation from the Director of Community Development.

At the Council’s Tuesday night meeting, the minor variance raised larger issues of setting precedence for following city code as well as the need not to alienate and disenfranchise homeowners from improving their homes or interacting with local government.

Owners of the home in question (located at 725 Los Padres Blvd.), Seval and Serdar Aksu, said they converted the shed into a home office for extra space when Seval was pregnant. However, a neighbor complained about a “privacy issue,” believing the couple would be renting the shed to tenants, without speaking to them.

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Code enforcement then informed the couple that the shed was constructed six inches too close for a proper set-back and issued a stop-work order, said Andrew Crabtree, Director of Community Development.

Seval emphasized that the shed was already on the property when her and her husband bought the home, and City employees knew of its existence because of interior renovation plans the previous owners submitted to the City.

When City employees reviewed the renovation for the home’s kitchen and bathroom, Crabtree said they were concerned with the home’s interior, not the shed. Further, the Askus completed renovating the shed despite the stop-work order.

Seval claims she tried to go through the proper channels to complete the work but got conflicting statements from a variety of people at City Hall.

Brian Doyle, acting City Attorney, said the Askus presented no facts to controvert the Planning Commission’s ruling and the request does not meet the zoning codes requirements for a variance.

“This would set a very bad precedent if you did this,” Doyle said. “The family deliberately violated the stop-work order, and you are rewarding them for that.”    

But the Council didn’t see it that way.

Council Member Patricia Mahan, who is also an attorney, said she doesn’t believe the Council’s decision sets precedent, and Mayor Lisa Gillmor said she does not expect a layperson to present facts the way an attorney would to make a case.

“They are improving the structure in the backyard,” Gillmor said. “I think they are doing everything they can.”

The Council approved the appeal 6-1. Council Member Kathy Watanabe was the lone “no” vote, saying that her decision was “really hard,” but with all the discussion surrounding the curfew at Levi’s Stadium and “following the law,” she needed “stand by that.”

Vice Mayor Dominic Caserta said the issue was not about a “buzzword” of “following the law,” but about “compassion.”

Extensions

The Council also continued an item to pass an ordinance on affordable housing until the City Attorney and City Manager can sort through what they described as a “raft of new housing statutes” surrounding the topic. Acting City Attorney Doyle said one of the laws expands local municipalities’ authority.

Vice Mayor Caserta said he would like there to be a sense of “urgency,” but also that he wanted the process to be “transparent” and “methodical.”

Newly-appointed City Manager, Deanna Santana, said she too would like to “handle this on an urgent basis.”

Also extended was the grace period for regulations on massage parlors.

Concerns that the 2016 Super Bowl would cause brothels masquerading as massage parlors to start popping up, the Council enacted regulations to quash what Mayor Gillmor called “bad actors” in Santa Clara. However, one of those regulations—a 500 foot limit from residential areas—had unintended consequences once the Council began approving new housing projects, causing some massage parlors to suddenly become non-compliant once the housing was built.

“If we did something to put some businesses out of business, that seems unfair,” Council Member Pat Kolstad said.

Although the Council voted unanimously to extend the period under which massage parlors can operate legally, some members of the public suggested the problem is with the initial enacting, saying many massage parlor landlords have opted out of having the owners renew their leases because they are unclear whether the business is adhering to City code.

Others took issue with the implications of such a law, implying it places a stigma on the industry.

Michael Yeo, a massage parlor owner, said big corporations don’t have to constantly be compared to AIG or other companies guilty of malfeasance, so massage parlors shouldn’t have to constantly be associated with brothels.

“If I am a legitimate business, why can’t I practice next to a school or residence?” said Kate DeMoss, another massage parlor owner.

Council mainstay Deborah Bress was also critical of the ordinance, calling it “hairbrained” and “Camp Run Amok.”

“It seems like we are creating a problem where we never had one,” Bress said.

Council Member Debi Davis said the City is trying to encourage “mom-and-pop shops,” not eliminate them. She said she would hate to see small business owners “destroyed over a silliness.”

Mayor Gillmor said the sooner the Council can deal with the issue, the better.

Money for City Amenities

Also passing unanimously was a vote to approve appropriations for the Mission Library rebuild. Although the City Engineer, Alan Kurotori, recommended last month that the Council reject all bids for the renovation, the Council went against that recommendation.

Instead, the Council voted to award the contract to the “lowest responsible bidder,” Gonsalves & Stronck on Tuesday. Additions, including energy efficient windows, and change orders could end up inflating the cost from Kurotori’s initial $2.3 million estimate to $4.2 million. Without change orders, the cost is set for $3.8 million. To get the money needed, the Council approved pulling $1.5 million from the Capital Projects Reserve.

Council Member Teresa O’Neill pulled another item detailing an application for a $500,000 county grant to make Arbor Park Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

James Teixeira, Parks and Recreation Director, said “we can certainly do better with our park design,” Teixeria said. Arbor Park, a community park located within Central Park on Kiely Boulevard, has been an “unfunded priority” for 10 years.  The upgrade would make “little to no impact” on existing park areas, he said.

The additions will aim to incorporate areas for climbing, balancing, “free play,” swinging and sliding, he said. The park will be inclusive of all ages and capabilities, he added.

Deborah Bress called the grant application for Arbor Park a “bait and switch,” adding that Montague Park is in worse need of renovation and that it is “next in line” for an upgrade. She accused City employees of steering money toward a “favored park.”

“Shame on you all for trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes,” Bress said.

However, Teixeira said a renovation for Montague Park is in the works. This grant is a matching county grant, which the City pays its portion from developer fees collected from the Prometheus development in close proximity to the park. Further, Montague Park is designated a “neighborhood park,” not a “community park,” which the grant is specifically for.

The Council voted unanimously to approve Teixeira’s department to apply for the grant—he said he hopes to hear back from the county by year’s end.

The next City Council meeting will be held in the Council Chambers 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.

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