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Fencing and fencing regulations have long been a “third rail” issue in this Town. It seems as if this issue is heating up again, with some true believers in the Moo-d to tear down existing fences throughout Woodside. Others are jumping the gun and creating new restrictions on homeowners before the Town has changed the rules! What’s going on?

The Open Space Committee’s Subcommittee for Fencing – represented by Committee member and ASRB member Nancy Reyering - brought a presentation to the Town COWncil earlier this year discussing their belief that the Municipal Code was out of sync with the 2012 General Plan and recently revamped Residential Design Guidelines. The presentation claimed that the code doesn’t conform to the General Plan – nor, for some reason, with the neighboring Town of Portola Valley’s fencing regulations. We should point out that our Code also doesn’t conform with that of Atherton, another neighboring Town that is a frequent bugaboo in Town COWncil discussions but how can it possibly matter what a neighboring Town’s rules are?

The Open Space Committee suggested the following fencing principles in their presentation:

• FENCING SHOULD BE USED SPARINGLY IN ORDER TO PRESERVE A SENSE OF THE SHARED
SCENIC RESOURCES OF THE COMMUNITY.
• ROADSIDE FENCING SHOULD BE WILDLIFE-FRIENDLY TO KEEP VISTAS OPEN AND THE ROADS
SAFE FOR MOTORISTS AND WILDLIFE.
• FENCING SHOULD BE KEPT OUT OF STREAM CORRIDORS.
• FENCING SHOULD BE SUBORDINATE TO THE LANDSCAPE.
• WILDLIFE-FRIENDLY SIDE AND BACK PERIMETER FENCING CAN BE ACHIEVED BY:
a. USING TALLER FENCES TO PROTECT SMALLER AREAS WITHIN A PROPERTY (FOR
CHILDREN,ANIMALS AND GARDENS).
b. CREATING BREAKS IN FENCES FOR ANIMALS TO TRAVERSE.

Horse fencing, which is primarily in the interior of properties will not be affected.

Now, some of this sounds reasonable, and seems like something we could chew our cud over as a Town. But, as always, the devil’s in the details. The Open Space Committee pointed to the regulations in Portola Valley, which are very restrictive (and which they misrepresented to COWncil in a way to paint them as even more restrictive then they actually are!). Front fences in Portola Valley are only allowed to be four feet high, and 4 feet high on side yards along streets, and 6 feet in rear and side yards (with wildlife breaks) that don’t border streets. In their packet to COWncil, the OSC misrepresented the following: they said that that repairs or replacement of more than 20% of any fence in Portola Valley must conform to the current regulations – it’s actually 25%, and it applies only to the portion being repaired and replaced. Currently in Woodside the figure is 50%. They also stated that “domestic fences” need to be set back at least 25 feet from the front property line, which isn’t true for properties less than one acre in size. Finally, they said that domestic fences are allowed on all property lines – when in fact parcels over two acres are only allowed to have “horse fences” – defined as a certain type of low and open fence – anywhere on the property.

This would be quite a change in Woodside, and something we should discuss openly instead of trying to sneak in some vague principles and then claiming it means four foot fences throughout the Town! The ASRB, and now apparently their cohorts on the OSC – have been claiming for some time now that the Municipal Code are in conflict with the General Plan and the Residential Design Guidelines, and that’s why these changes are needed. In fact, in response to this proposal, the Planning Director studied the issue and noted with the concurrence of the Town Manager that the Municipal Code and General Plan are “not in direct conflict.” Staff went on to say that modifications to the Municipal Code to “more closely align” with the General Plan is appropriate – but certainly didn’t say it was required, or urgent, or necessary, or even important at this time given all the other proposed projects in Town.

When the COWncil discussed this matter with the OSC earlier in the year and, to their credit, there was a lot of skepticism from the COWncil. They cited security (including recent car break-ins), blocking light on parcels where the home is near the street, and keeping deer out of yards. COWncil member Tom Shanahan noted that open fences (aka “wildlife friendly”) won’t keep dogs in a yard. Fentress Hall, who sits on the Trails Committee and frequently expresses opinions to the COWncil, suggested that Woodsiders can put up electronic fences with shock collars on their dogs to keep them inside the perimeter!.. When COWncil member Dave Tanner noted that “dumb dogs” ignore electronic fences, Fentress callously suggested it would “improve the gene pool.”

It was also suggested that we need more Mountain Lions in Town. While we’re a big fan of wildlife and learning to live in harmony with it, is this the Woodside we really want? More Mountain Lions, fewer dogs (or maybe only fewer “dumb dogs”), and an inability for COWs to keep out intruders and enjoy their privacy?

Fentress also suggested that current, existing fences should be “sunsetted” – i.e. TORN DOWN – basically because she doesn’t like the look of them. She said, “we don’t get anywhere if we don’t deal with what’s here,” saying it was “painful” and that we’ve “already lost what’s nice about Woodside.” She suggested that when a property changes hands, or when a homeowner comes in for a permit, they be forced to change existing fences to whatever the current fence flavor of the moment is. How big an issue would that be? During the meeting, the Planning Director noted that the majority of fencing in town is 6’ wood-and-wire fencing. It doesn’t sound very green to us to tear out hundreds of miles of fencing in good shape for the heck of it!

You can see these outrageous statements for yourself by checking out the MooTube video and agenda of this meeting here.

In regards to the imagined disconnect between the General Plan and the Municipal Code, it should be noted what the GP has to say about promoting conservation actions in Woodside, including use of wildlife friendly fencing: “Policy CV1.9-d. Individual Initiative - Promote and encourage individual initiative by local residents and property owners to carry out specific efforts for the protection of the environment.” INDIVIDUAL INITIATIVE, not the Town forcing you to rip out your fences – and yet here we are two years later with some zealots claiming a non-existent mandate from the General Plan to do just that.

One thing we did hear during the COWncil meeting on this issue that we liked was the idea of allowing 8’ fences closer to homes and around vegetable gardens, to truly secure against wily deer. It might be the sugar that lets some of the medicine go down if some of these changes are really coming down the pike.

After the pushback and discussion from the COWncil, the OSC met and prepared another report to the COWncil stating that they were going to focus on:

• Roadside fencing should be set back and wildlife friendly to keep the roads safe for wildlife and motorists, and preserve a sense of the shared resources of the community.
• Fences around non-roadside perimeters of properties should be designed with respect for the movement of wildlife.
• Fences should be kept out of stream corridors.”

They also wanted to look at changing the 50% fence repair figure we noted above, and said, “At this time, the Committee does not wish to address other issues raised at the Council meeting, such as a sunset provision for existing fences.” Given how these projects in the Town Government go, and the Town COWncil’s apparent willingness to let the OSC write the rules for Woodside, who knows how long “at this time” is? Will it be snuck into a Code change in a year’s time, when the pushback against these new rules has subsided?

Woodside’s government seems to love to go through these phases of restriction every so often – old hands will remember that they pushed through restrictions on paved area in Town, and then interpreted it to cover gravel which it had never restricted before just a few years later. Now they’re planning on restricting fences and the ASRB wants to reduce basement size and the maximum buildable area on “sensitive” sites. It sounds like the Town government is getting out of hand again.

What’s the best evidence for this? At a recent (5/19/2014) ASRB meeting, a homeowner was trying to modify the design of a couple of gates and fencing that had been previously approved by the ASRB. Nancy Reyering (who remember sits on both the OSC and the ASRB) didn’t like the design, considering it “too industrial.” While her colleagues disagreed, she said that the applicant should lower the (previously approved!) fence and the gate as well. Ms. Reyering claimed to be ‘befuddled’ by the ‘new members’ on the ASRB only referencing the Municipal Code – i.e. the LAW – and not the Residential Design Guidelines. She then offered a so-called ‘friendly amendment’ to REQUIRE a 5’ maximum height limit on the fence and 8” at the bottom for smaller animals to crawl under. While that died, another amendment to ‘consider’ such a fence passed, and then a further amendment that REQUIRED the 8” gap at the bottom passed, over the loud objections of the homeowner, who said it would require changing the whole design of the fence. Nancy didn’t deign to vote for this as it didn’t also limit the height to 5’.

The applicant asked, quite rightly, “Is this a new requirement in Town? That every fence has an 8” opening at the bottom?” Well, is it? When an ASRB member can’t get a massive change in Town regulations created overnight at the Town COWncil, does the ASRB take the matter into its own hands and start creating de facto new regulations that suit their own tastes? Will 5’ and then 4’ fences be “suggested” over and over and over again with homeowners appearing at three and four meetings before the ASRB until it becomes a requirement?

Unfortunately, we can’t be at every ASRB meeting, so who knows what new rules and laws they are creating at their whim! The ASRB, and the regulatory process in this Town, is totally broken.

There have been rumblings lately – louder than usual rumblings – over the Architectural Site and Review Board and how well and how timely they do their job. There was a training session earlier in the year that exposed a fair amount of confusion among ASRB members (starting on page 15), about the ASRB role. Staff pointed that included pointing out to the members that it is not their job to pass judgment on how many square feet a house can be, although ASRB members immediately got to work trying to figure out code language to allow just that – i.e., “mass and bulk” or “specific constraints of the lot that preclude maxing out on allowable square footage.”

Despite this training effort, the rumblings have only gotten louder, with the ASRB taking more and more time to review projects, for example – seeing the same project up to FOUR times BEFORE it sending it on to the Planning Commission. With building activity exploding, the ASRB is holding up to three meetings a month and is still falling behind. The ASRB is tasked with a big workload that they’re seemingly making bigger, getting into the weeds with little details and often failing to see the big picture, at a real cost in dollars and time to COWs. The Board clearly is struggling with what they see as conflicts between the the General Plan, the Woodside Municipal Code and the Design Guidelines.

It was with this background that the Town COWncil recently held a special meeting with the ASRB. At the meeting, one ASRB member expressed his frustration with how overbroad he feels the ASRB’s attention has gotten, telling people that their house is too big or that it is too intensive a use even if the Code makes it is permissible on what he characterized as relatively unconstrained lots. He said he has heard from architects that they, “don’t know what’s okay to build in Woodside anymore.” He later said that some on the ASRB say that maximum house sizes “shouldn’t” be allowed – but as he pointed out, that’s what the Code allows. He said that the ASRB gets lengthy discussions about “too big,” “too massive,” “too intense,” – saying “that all we say.”

Other ASRB members strongly disagreed, saying that there should be MORE restrictions, and clearer language, to reduce building size from what’s allowed in the Code on “sensitive” or “constrained” lots. They said that people (shockingly!) look at the Code and believe that defines what they can build in Woodside – and these ASRB members were of the opinion that that’s not correct.

Another ASRB member noted that several times lately at formal reviews - done after perhaps several conceptual reviews and which should really be a rubber stamp at that point – new substantial issues are brought up by other ASRB members to the surprise of homeowners.

The COWncil members in turn expressed their frustration with the process as it is functioning, or dys-functioning, right now. Peter Mason noted that the idea behind the conceptual reviews was to get initial ideas and get a project going in the right direction with what he called “Woodside design.” He said it was meant to be a quick review upfront for direction, and that the ASRB needs to make sure it’s not asking too much of applicants. Interestingly, Peter also claimed that if a project doesn’t get a 7-0 vote at the ASRB then “something’s wrong” (a startling statement at a time of noted divisiveness on the ASRB.) As Dave Tanner noted, people consider being approved as being approved. Mayor Dave Burow stated he’s “very troubled” that the ASRB spends it’s time making such judgments about house size, saying it’s a tortuous process and that he didn’t want the ASRB to decide that houses should be smaller than what is in the code.

As a result of the meeting, COWncil and Staff agreed to move forwards on possible Code changes related to basement size and reducing grading allowances – with COWncil member Tanner asserting that there should be a rule that says that homeowners can’t build tunnels or go beyond the edges of their buildings with basements. The work plan also included the idea of limiting house size (maximum floor area) on those so-called sensitive or constrained lots although, as is often pointed out at the ASRB itself, “every site is unique.” Is this a stealth way of reducing house sizes throughout Woodside, without labeling it as such in order to avoid the outcry that would result?

So, scary stuff. You can check it all out on MooTube. It’s definitely worth watching for a grim picture for Woodside.