City of Los Altos CA Planning Department Advice on New Custom Home Design and Approval Process

In this webinar, Sean Gallegos, Planner City of Los Altos, CA talks about the Approval Cycle Process for designing and building a New House and ADU.

Livio and City of Los Altos hosting webinar to help you build your custom home


Sean Gallegos


Rob Dowling: I think it's lunch hour and we'll get started. All right. Well, without further ado Sean, we'll kick it off here and as folks join hopefully, they can jump right into it, but ultimately thank you so much everybody for taking the time to join us today, recorded or live with us right now. We're really fortunate to have Sean with the city of Los Altos here to help walk us through the permitting process in Los Altos. For those of you who have been able to catch our previous webinars on the planning approval process, we've gone through the town of Los Altos Hills. We've been lucky enough to talk to the city of Palo Alto. Ultimately there's a lot of similarities between the two, but there's also some nuanced differences as well about the approval cycle. Certainly, even if you're not in the town or the city of Los Altos Hills, hopefully this will still be beneficial to give you a good overview of what the planning process is all about.

So, without further ado, I'll just give a brief introduction of the agenda for today. I'll start by giving a very quick introduction about us and then I'll hand it off to Sean to introduce himself, talk a little bit about the Los Altos planning department and how they're structured. We'll go through and talk at a higher level about maybe some important terms to know during the presentation. Talk to you a little bit about the process overview of what is the planning department and where in the cycle does it fall? We'll then jump into single-story home approval and two-story home approval and then we'll talk about ADU’s and then hopefully we'll leave about 10 minutes at the end for any questions that might come up.

Two ways to ask questions. There's the Q&A box at the top. Throughout the course of the presentation, if something comes to your mind you can type into that Q&A box at any time. I will hold off questions till the end. As things come to you feel free to type it out and I'll field everything at the end. The other way to ask the question is, at the last 10 minutes, you have the ability to virtually raise your hand for any questions you might have, and I can give you the opportunity to speak by virtually passing the mic over to you, and you can either direct the question to either myself or Sean and we can go from there.

Hopefully that makes sense. Just to kick it off, a little bit about us for anybody who's not familiar. We're a residential general contractor. We specialize in custom single-family homes. It's what we do. We do so by partnering with some great folks at town locally to see the project through the approval cycle, hopefully expeditiously and also, we are working with some great partners on the contracting side of the business to keep things moving along and ultimately to deliver what we hope will be a beautiful end product for you and your family.

We have a unique business model approach which allows us to have a vertically integrated process. Our office is here in Los Altos. Part of our office is in India as well, which gives us the opportunity to do a lot more engineering, a lot more design work that otherwise wouldn't have been possible and ultimately it also wouldn't happen without the great folks on our team to make it all happen. Small representation of the team as a whole, so excited to be the person to represent them. Without further ado though, I'd love to hand it off to Sean. Sean, if you wouldn't mind just introducing yourself, that would be great.

Sean Gallegos: Sure. My name is Sean Gallegos. I’m an associate planner here with the city of Los Altos. I've been with the city, coming up on my ninth year. I've been through quite a few different administrations in our community and I've worked mostly on single family homes, commercial, and multifamily projects. Right now, the focus is primarily single-family homes. I've worked as a planner for about 16 or 17 years, and I've worked all throughout the Bay Area. I've worked in San Rafael, Foster City, Half Moon Bay and then here in Los Altos. I've also done work in the private sector and worked for San Mateo and then also for Mountain View. But I've been with this community for about nine years.

Rob Dowling: Excellent. Sean, how large is the planning department right now at the city of Los Altos?

Sean Gallegos: The planning department typically is made up of six individuals, our director and our planning division manager, and four planners, a senior, two associates, and an assistant. We're currently for the last seven, eight months we've been at half-staff. We do have a new planner that's joined us and our other planner hopefully will come back full time soon but typically, that's the size of our department. We do work directly with building and engineering services department and they're significantly larger than us.

Rob Dowling: Got it. Okay. Hopefully, and I imagine the projects didn't slow down by half that amount during that shortage of staff either unfortunately.

Sean Gallegos: No, I mean, I think if you look at just accessory dwelling units, we went from under 10 units a year to 74 last year, and we're on track to probably hit 130 and we did it with half of the staffing, which is a good reason why we have virtual because it's worked for good for us to get things done.

Rob Dowling: Yeah, no doubt. Definitely that ADU number, it's definitely in line with, I guess, the goals of the state.

Sean Gallegos: Yes.

Rob Dowling: That's great that you guys are getting there. It's a lot of work on your side. Awesome. Well maybe we'll start just by Sean, if you wouldn't mind, just telling me a little bit about the planning division at the city of Los Altos, what responsibilities you have and what you're doing for the community.

Sean Gallegos: Similar to a lot of jurisdictions, the planning divisions are responsible for development that occurs on private development site. We do have some involvement with development on public properties, but mostly it's private sector properties. The planning division oversees both single family developments on single families owned properties, multi-family development, which we have a whole slew of commercial and multifamily zone properties. Then we also do commercial development. Many times, mostly office and smaller scale retail improvements and developments. The planning division’s primary responsibility is to one, to address issues of design. That's tied directly to the design findings that we have within our zoning regulations, both either for commercial, which we have specific findings for design for commercial or residential, which has specific design findings that we work towards.

Part of that is also looking at zoning regulations in regards to the development standards, and then looking at specific design standards that may be site specific. We're also responsible to make sure that we're implementing the general plan policies. This is less applicable to single family homes. It's more applicable to multifamily, larger scale commercial projects where we're starting to look at larger and broader policy goals and objectives regarding either land use or circulation or housing. Those are pulled in due to mostly and partly to environmental reviews. Environmental review is the third element of planning division's responsibility. Our primary is design, secondary is like zoning compliance and general plan compliance, but then also environmental review.

Most single-family homes are exempt from environmental review and so we do not see environmental related issues with single family properties. It's mostly commercial multifamily that we see that. A lot of the more significant responsibilities when it comes to design is due to the unique characteristics of our neighborhoods, which mostly was built in the 1950s. So, single-family character and staff review of design in relation to the character of the neighborhood is very important and is sometimes is a missing element for designers as they're designing for our community. That’s generally broadly what our requirements are, our responsibilities.

Rob Dowling: Excellent. I forgot to mention at the beginning, but all the topics we're going over of course, during this one hour, there's a lot more to it, of course. This is meant to hopefully give everybody a good overview, but the city of Los Angeles has a ton of useful documentation. Some of which we'll be covering here, but definitely encourage anybody who's going down this effort to either partner with somebody who's familiar with the process, and also to learn about and educate you about the process by looking online yourself as well. But hopefully this gives everybody a good overview. Moving on. Zoning residential code. Sean, a little bit different than I guess, Los Altos Hills, but city of Los Altos is looking at multiple different zoning code, as far as in different uses, as far as multifamily commercial. But for today's session, we're going to be geared primarily just to residential. Sean, could you walk us through how the residential zoning code is split up? I know there's a few different districts. That would be great.

Sean Gallegos: Primarily, close to 95% of most of our single-family zone properties are R1-10. R1-10 are single family lots with a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet, that's where the 10 comes from. Typically, our lots, for interior lots are usually 11,000 square feet. Flag lots are 15,000 and setbacks and lot coverage are slightly different for R1-10s versus R1-H. Our larger lots, R1-20 is 20,000 square feet, R1-40 is 40,000 square feet. The setbacks are much more significant in regards to it. Floor area follows the same practice that we have for single family. We see less R1-20 and R1-40 and R1-H. Most of those have been developed, and they're usually larger scale homes that many times we would see in like Los Altos Hills. They're usually larger scale, much bulkier homes. You typically would not see a design in an R1-H and in R1-10 lot. It just doesn't work. R1-10s are our primary type of plot that we deal with in regards to design. Most of our lots are between 10,000 to 16,000 square feet. Though there are lots that are larger. That's where we see the general size of lots.

Rob Dowling: Excellent. I guess one nuance, the city of Los Altos, there's also a portion of the city that's also unincorporated, right? There's possibly maybe folks who are listening and maybe the zoning code at the city of Los Altos may not be applicable. Sean, where does the borderline meet roughly speaking?

Sean Gallegos: In an unincorporated like Country Club area, so I guess it borders Permanente Creek, Foothill Expressway. Well, let me see really quick. I'm looking at the map again. It goes from Permanente Creek all the way up to Foothill Expressway and then I think all the way down by Magdalena. We have a whole section that's county. Now we're not involved with reviewing, well, I should back up. We do receive development applications for design review from the county for single family homes. Our review is only limited to looking at density. Are you complying with the density requirements per general plan?

We can't require any modifications in regards to single family homes in the county. However, we do provide input because at some point these homes may become incorporated or may join the city and we want to make sure we don't have homes that potentially will come in as non-conforming properties because that results in a whole series of other issues. We do provide informally comments regarding design and setbacks and development standards. They're able to ignore them if they'd like, and many times they do. We've not heard there's been a tremendous desire by the unincorporated areas to merge into the city and that'll likely be the case unless they pursue becoming part of Los Altos.

Rob Dowling: Understood. That sounds great. Jumping into maybe some of the important topics and some of the important maybe terms that folks who are listening may not be familiar with. Sean, I wrote down some here, but certainly if there are others that come to mind that we might be talking about today, that you think might be important for folks to have a little bit of background on, please feel free to elaborate on this list.

Sean Gallegos: I think coverage is pretty standard from city to city. I mean, it's just, it's any covered structure that has a height of greater than six feet. Coverage is open area so we count anything that is covered that's over six feet tall, whether they have walls or not, just kind of broadly. Now floor area is anything that's over six feet tall, that's fully enclosed. One of the distinctions, at least for our city, when it comes to floor area ratio is we do not count multiple times high volume spaces. If you have a high-volume entryway or an 18-foot-tall living room and many jurisdictions, they will double count that. We do not double count high volume spaces. However, we do double count stairwells. For stairs that are on the two-story home, we will count the area of the stairs on the first and second floor. However, the center area that the stairwells surrounds is considered a high-volume space, and we don't count that little space in the center of the stairs. I think that's beneficial for individuals when it comes to floor area, to understand you can have higher volume spaces within the constraints of your floor area.

Our setback standards for R1-10 minimum 10 feet, 20 on each side, 25 feet, front and rear with 17 and a half second stories. The daylight plane, not all jurisdictions have daylight plane. Our daylight plane is very constraining. It requires a lot of height on the side property lines. You go in at a 25-degree angle. It ends up creating a very common style of home where we have these like wedding cake style homes where they kind of step in at the second story and then they have a peak center. Part of that is also driven by our floor area ratio in regards to how we count space. Because typically high-volume spaces now can't go on the sides because of daylight planes, so they build them in the center. We have a lot of low plates on the first floor on the sides and then build up to high volume in the center. These kinds of terms make a difference in how we define them.

Protected trees is a big issue in this community. If you propose a project without really recognizing the importance of our tree protection regulation, you will have tremendous problems in the design review process. Under our tree protection regulations, anything over 48 inches is protected. However, in design review any tree over four inches is required to be acknowledged and you can't remove them through the design review process and staff may require trees to be retained unless you can meet the tree removal criteria.

Non-Conforming uses. Our city was, part of the county was unincorporated in 1950s when we were incorporated. So again, as I was talking back about the issues of the county, we do have a lot of non-conforming properties in the city. It is an ongoing issue with non-conformity. It's very important that when you're designing an addition that you're acknowledging and recognizing the limits, which is really you can't exceed 50% modifications to the structural components of the building, which is the roof, the walls and the foundation and that's a big issue for the community.

Net lot area is the total lot area minus the portion of the property that's part of a right of way or access easement. Basements, not many communities to this extent that I've worked in, in multiple counties have a lot of basements. This community has tremendous number of basements being built with homes. We do allow for light wells, which is common, but we do allow for patio wells. Patio wells are very significant outdoor spaces that could be very significant. They can run from the back of the house to the property line if they'd like, as long as they keep a five-foot setback. We do see a lot of basements in our community. Most of the time it's in neighborhoods where residents want to try to maintain the one-story look or they want to avoid the Design Review Commission process so they do a one story with a basement beneath. The benefit of a basement with the one story is you can double the size of your floor area because basements don't count towards floor area. If you do a two story, then you end up reducing the potential floor area for the site, with the basement.

Rob Dowling: Understood. Sean, just a quick clarification, when you say protected trees over 48 inches, how is that measured?

Sean Gallegos: You measure a tree at a height of four feet, and then you measure it around the entire circumference of the tree. It's either 48 inches or 15.4 inches in diameter. If you have a multi-trunk tree, then you go around all around the outer portion of all the trunks combined. You don't measure each individual trunk, you measure all around all four of them, if there are four trees.

Rob Dowling: Understood. Okay. Sounds great. When you said basement, just to clarify, so basement by the city's definition is assuming it meets the definition of a basement is not defined as a story in this instance.

Sean Gallegos: If you meet the definition of a basement, that means that the finished floor of the first story is no greater than two feet above grade and so then it's not considered a basement. Even if you have a massive patio well, where the whole story below is visible really from outside, because it can't be, as long as that finished floor for the first story is two feet from grade, then it's a basement. If you're on a hillside development and you have a partial reveal of a first story, then we will count that basement area all the way back to where the finished floor height is two feet or less. We won't count the entire basement. We'll consider a portion of it.

Rob Dowling: Got it. All right. Thank you for that clarification. We are talking about obviously a portion of the entire process, which I think is important to acknowledge. Not the entire approval cycle. Sean, can you tell, talk to us a little bit about what departments you work closely with at the city and what departments are in fact involved in this planning phase before jumping into the building department phase?

Sean Gallegos: In the initial submittal with the planning department, we initially route the plans to St. Claire County Fire. Santa Clara Valley Water District is now also asking to be involved in any new home development or any new project over 750 square feet, so they can confirm that there's sufficient water available for each home. Part of our conditions of approval now stipulate that you have to provide documentation that the water district has confirmed that there's sufficient water for servicing your home, which is new. That's from within the last year. We route plans directly to them and then they will provide us comments and inputs regarding the design and we will forward those to the applicants and, or incorporate them as conditions of approval.

Once the planning division has gone through the planning process and we've issued a building permit even, or design review permit for either one story or two-story home, then the applicant will submit a separate permit to the building division, a building permit. Both the planning and building now is a digital process where everything for planning is submitted online at the planning division website. We have a link. You would create an account and submit your application through an online portal. The building division is slightly different. They are digital. However, you email your package to them. Instead of sending it through a portal, you email it to them and then they will set up an account, send you invoices, and then start that review process where building will also route the plans to the fire department, to the county assessor's office.

Then there'll be a set of plans available for the planning division. Planning division again, reviews the plans to make sure that they match the planning or design review plans and many times they don't. Especially with non-conforming structures at the design phase, we don't have the structural drawings. So, the planners are looking at structural drawings, which, for a lot of planners, we don't always look at structural drawings per se, but in this community, we look at structural drawings because of non-conforming structures, and so we look at them a lot.

The building division will route them, we'll review them to make sure they match the existing plans. If they do, we sign off and also if they match our conditions of approval, which they should. Building will then issue a permit and then through that permit, you can begin to construction and then there's a series of inspections that occur throughout the building permit process. Planning is not involved through the inspection process. We're not involved until the very end of the process. At the very end of the process if you're building a new home, whether it's single story or two story, we will be requiring submittal of water-efficient regulation documents, certificate of completion, irrigation audit reports, will to be submitted to the building division before final. You have to submit that to each of the individual planners.

For one stories, as long as you’ve submitted the documents, we do not do a final inspection for one stories, unless there are very unique conditions to the site or to the project. Many times, if it's not conforming, we may. Typically, one stories do not have planning finals. Two-story projects or variance application, or historic properties have final inspections by the planning division. We will go out to a site and inspect it to make sure you meet the particular requirements per the building permit plans, or to make sure you meet the requirements from the historian. Even if the historian has told us that it does meet it, we double-check because in the end, the planning division is responsible for the final outcome of the building.

Once we signed off, of course, engineering also has to sign off in this process. At the building phase, engineering will be looking at storm water related issues. At the planning division does also. We also have training in stormwater, and we do go to the similar training as they do. At the design review phase, we do look at stormwater issues and we do look at how they affect trees. We do make sure they meet the minimum requirements required per the C3 requirements. Then we also in the building phase, try to double-check and try to support engineering division and their stormwater decisions. Once building, planning and engineering is signed off and fire has done their final inspections and signed off, then you will have your certificate of occupancy issued to you where you can then move into the building. It's not always that easy. It's usually, not every project is that straightforward. I wish they were.

Rob Dowling: Sure. No, I would imagine. How would somebody come to find if their property is historic, Sean?

Sean Gallegos: Well, you can go to the city's website. On the historical commission website, we have a list of all the properties. Then if you go to the planning division's website, we have a GIS link where you can type in your address or a particular address if you're looking at homes and it will give you information on the properties, whether they're in a one-story overlay, what their zoning is, what their lot size is generally and then whether the property is historic.

Rob Dowling: Excellent. That sounds great. You did just mention one story overlays. We'll jump over to the single-story home approval. I guess before we jump into this, we've split it up just to remind everybody back to the agenda. We split it up into a single story and the design review process, the DRC process, a separate portion of the presentation, which Sean, maybe before we jump into it, can you describe the nuances between the two cycles and how you get on each track, I guess, so to speak.

Sean Gallegos: Design review, they're both the same type of findings, design review findings. One of them is administrative and one is Design Review Commission. The administrative process in order to qualify for it, you have to have a one-story house that's 20 feet or less than height. You're not allowed to exceed a maximum height of 20 feet if you're a one-story, if you want administrative review. The moment you exceed 20 feet in height for a one-story or you're proposing a two-story or you're proposing a variance, then you automatically are bumped up to Design Review Commission. Now the big nuance is single-story design review administrative approval is not a publicly noticed action. That means that planning staff, community development director will review these projects to make sure they meet our zoning regulations or development standards design guidelines.

At the end, if staff does believe the project meets all those requirements, then we can issue an approval. Then there's an appeal period and as long as that appeals period expires, then the project is approved. The Design Review Commission staff again, does the same thing. However, we have to take, even though we believe that it may qualify and meet all the requirements, we are required to take it to a public hearing. That public hearing process requires public notification. That's a big distinction. We have to notify neighbors and the immediate neighborhood context, which are the two homes on either side, the five homes across the street and the home directly behind. We have to put up noticing posters at the site. Then through that process members can appeal the project to the city council.

The big distinction is one stories, though neighbors have a right to appeal, they're not notified of their rights to appeal. We're not obligated to notify the public. If a member of the public does learn about a one story, they can appeal it if they'd like. Most of the time members of the public aren't aware. I mean, they do have a right to go online and look and see which projects we have and we try to list all of our current involvement applications but that is a big benefit to homeowners. If you build a one-story, is a quicker process with less of likelihood of appeal.

Rob Dowling: Yeah, absolutely. Just to clarify, the items that you're looking for as the planner in this instance, same set of constraints and same bar that would otherwise give you the okay to get it ready for hearing, I guess, is it that same threshold or is it any sort of different criteria that you're looking at?

Sean Gallegos: It’s the same criteria, except from my experience, we're much more conservative at the administrative level. We're much more careful because council has given the administrative staff the ability to approve one stories and we're very respectful of that authority that we've been given. We try to act no differently than we think the DRC would act and we try to follow the same kind of practices and standards that they've established and how they've interpreted our design review findings, or how they've interpreted the design review guidelines. We try to be consistent so there's no conflict. Many times, with designs where we see conflict, we may give a very clear direction and input and leave it up to DRC to provide the clear direction.

But for one story design our input will be much more significant potentially. Because in the end we want to make sure that when we do have a one story approved project, that the members, the public's happy with that design and that is a defensible project. That means we can go to council and be able to support the project and be able to show how it did meet all the findings and how it did meet all the design guidelines and not as a potential of having it overturned. We are more careful with one stories.

Rob Dowling: Excellent. I think that helps make that distinction clear. You mentioned quickly, before we jump to this slide, the single-story overlay. Can you quickly just describe, I know it's probably within the zoning code, same way that the historic is designated, but can you mention just briefly what that means?

Sean Gallegos: We have very few of them. If you're in a neighborhood that has a single story, that means that that your neighborhood has come to the city through a public process and through a petition has welcome and requested a one-story overlaid to be approved. This requires the city clerk's office and the planning division staff to manage a quasi-election for members of the public in these residential areas to vote on a one-story overlay. Through ballots, then we determine if majority have approved the one story, and if they do approve it, then it lasts for a period I believe of five years I could be wrong, but I think it lasts for a period of five years. Then if nobody appeals it within that timeline, then it continues in perpetuity unless someone files to have it revoked or ended. Now, one story overlay districts in effect means you're limited to one story. Nothing beyond a one story is permitted and no two stories are permitted in the districts. We haven't had a new one story in probably five or six years, but lots of discussions about other sites.

Rob Dowling: Okay. That's really helpful. Sean, one thing that I'm sure is on people's minds when they're making the decision between, hey, do I push it and do I go the two, assuming I'm not in a single-story overlay, making the decision, do I go with a single story for the basement or do I risk it and go through the public review process of going with a two story? What sort of timeline, and of course the DRC process has a much more like chance, I guess, likelihood of public review and it getting kicked back from the process, but generally speaking what sort of guidance could you give residents as far as the difference in time that you're looking at?

Sean Gallegos: When we're fully staffed, the previse that if you're proposing a single story under 500 square feet under 20 foot in height structure, traditionally in the past, it was like over-the-counter process. We don't have over the counter. We probably never will. It's typically three days to a week review process for a single-story overlay or a single-story addition under 500 square feet. If it's over 500 square feet, it’s a 30-day review. But typically, and then you'll get an incompleteness letter and as long as you resolve those things, then we can approve it. It's usually like four to six weeks for full approval for a one story. For a Design Review Commission, we take--

Rob Dowling: Just to clarify that, that's just the planning phase?

Sean Gallegos: That’s just the planning process. Today, it's just due to the volume of projects, it's really tough to keep that lower than that. For under 500 we can do shorter review periods, but for over 500, it's more difficult. When you get to designer view projects, two stories, once stories over 20 feet variances, the initial review period is 30 days. Then right at the 30-day review mark we will give you a comment letter. It'll either be a letter of completeness or incompleteness. If it's incomplete, then you will need to submit a revised set of plans, addressing your comments or a response to our comments. You're not always obligated to revise.

Then once you've submitted that, then once we deem it complete, or you want to move it forward, because an applicant always has the right to move any project forward to DRC, whether they don't meet any of the development standards or whether they don't meet the design guidelines. They can say, we want to go forward. With that you'll likely get a recommendation for denial, but you can still always go forward. You'll have the 30-day review, you'll have a letter, you'll have probably 14 days to get a response. Then at two months we'll get scheduled for a meeting and then you'll get scheduled about two and a half weeks later. It's about two, two and a half months, sometimes three. I think as we get fully staffed, it should get better, but that's the typical timeline right now.

Rob Dowling: Understood. About, call it four to six weeks for a single story and you're looking at two and a half months or so if you were to go with the two story.

Sean Gallegos: I think one of the most significant factors are designers that have many times experience in our community. They have a lot of experience with either Los Altos or design guidelines. I do see projects managed by those firms seem to move through quicker because they already understand what the expectations are in the community and so the designs aren't always so challenging. So many times, outside firms that either don't communicate with staff or don't read the design guidelines as well, and don't ask the right questions for staff can end up having challenging projects. They can end up having a lengthy and completeness review process versus like some of our local firms or even nearby firms that work in our community. They can be approved within six weeks, seven weeks. It's a big difference.

Rob Dowling: Yeah. Just like anything else. I think who you choose to partner with can definitely make or break that process. No doubt. We talked a little bit about this already. I probably should have jumped ahead while you were going through the timelines, but I think for the most part you talked through this process more than anything else. Was there anything that you'd like to touch on, Sean that maybe we missed when discussing on the last slide?

Sean Gallegos: I think with design review, I think it's very important that individuals in reading our design guidelines look, truly try to acknowledge and recognize what their character is of the neighborhood character is. In our city we have consistent character, diverse character, transitional character, and that's very important because a lot of our neighborhoods are ranch style homes and eight-foot plates and low scale roofing forms and very low scale massing and very low scale like front entry porches. If you acknowledge that, that it's gazetted character, then you won't come in with an 11 or 12-foot plate house with a 17-foot-tall entry and plates that are just way abnormal. Because then you're not really paying attention and that just results in delay in your project. It's very important that you acknowledge that and see that, and then try to design accordingly so that you can address issues of bulk and scale while trying to make sure it fits into that neighborhood character. Because that's very important.

Now, when I talk about neighborhood character doesn't mean you have to recreate a ranch home. That's not what we're saying. We recognize as the staff and the city recognize that how homes are used changes from time to time and how homes are designed and how people use the homes change. But the expectation is that it's not supposed to be a huge leap. It's supposed to be an incremental change in design, at least from the community's perspective. That means if your neighborhood is mostly eight or nine feet, then a nine and a half. If your community is eight feet than a nine-foot plate. It's about incrementalism to an extent in this community than it is for extreme swings and designs.

Now extreme swings can work in a transitional neighborhood. A transitional neighborhood is a neighborhood that has a variety of particular designs and scale and bulks and there's no one set parameter. Then there's a lot of fluidity in how you want to design your home. Benvenue, I think is an example of more of a transitional neighborhood. Right now, we have a lot of neighborhoods that are moving into diverse character, which is in between those two design forms. We're getting a lot of new homes in neighborhoods. Though there is some transition, it's still mostly consistent, but there is some flexibility in regards to scale. It's important, please read the design guidelines as one. Two, please read our tree protection requirements and then please acknowledge the grading and drainage plan requirements. It's very important that you address grading and drainage for any new house. That means that when you design your grading and drainage that you don't forget about your tree locations, because sometimes trees should not be in the center of infiltration devices.

Again, these are some of the big issues in design. When we talk about scale and bulk, in this community it's a lot about plate heights. It's a lot about complex roof forms and tall features, stairwell features or other defining features on a structure. Does mean that you can't introduce them, they just have to be designed… You can have two story tall features that could be very interesting contrasting design features that'll add a lot of interesting beauty to the home. We're not opposed to that, but we're opposed to unnecessary two-story features that really don't add anything or are not well integrated into the design.

Then of course the inside out design approach is somewhat of a result of our floor area definition that does allow for multi high volume spaces without double counting the area. Then we get many times one story houses with 20-foot, 19-foot interior heights on the center of the home and so they're designing from their interior out. It should be from the outside in, which is more of a challenge I recognize for architects, but that's the expectation for our community. The front setbacks are again about character. You need to look at your neighborhood and you need to recognize what is common. We have setback standards that are 25 feet for R1-10 but if your neighborhood has a standard that's typically 30 feet, then you should follow that standard, even if it's greater than the setback for the district.

A big issue is privacy. Especially in the last five years, we've had a tremendous concern from residents with concerns about second story windows on sides and rear. That has resulted in most of our second story side windows raising up to four-and-a-half-foot seal heights, which really causes at least from staff's perspective, causes a tremendous design issue on the sides when we have all heights of windows at the second story. But this is what the DRC, and this is what the public is demanding to an extent. We're seeing a lot of that happening. It's very important that you design your house accordingly, that you can keep the seal heights higher on the sides. Then when it comes to balconies, it's very important that your balconies are no greater than the depth of four feet in depth.

The design review guidelines stipulate that anything greater than four feet is an active space and the city does not want active spaces on second stories. Active spaces are where people can congregate and parties and create noise. It's both a privacy issue and a noise related issue. You'll get pushback from staff and from the DRC for balconies that are oversized. Over the last five years, we've been seeing windows raise and balcony shrink and get eliminated from sides. I've been with city nine years. The previous four years before that we didn't see that happening and that's been mostly because we're getting more and more houses and a lot of these neighborhood is getting developed, and this is becoming a concern for neighbors. Again, tree preservation is of course always important in this city.

Rob Dowling: Absolutely. One thing Sean, that you mentioned is the character of the neighborhood and keeping in mind the neighborhood context that you're building within and designing within. The characters that you mentioned, just to be clear, those aren't defined anywhere within the zoning code, for example, [inaudible 00:45:08]. It's an architect’s interpretation of where the neighborhood is and the staff's opinion of where the neighborhood is at the moment, or is that something that actually somebody can go in and say, okay, well I'm in a transitional neighborhood, or, I'm in a ranch style? Just curious.

Sean Gallegos: Well, so that said the design guidelines, if you go to the design guidelines, then there's a section on character and it does... you know, the design guidelines are guidelines. They're not zoning code. They're not municipal code standards, so they're guidelines. But the guidelines do provide a general definition of what consistent and diverse and transitional is. Well, they can be somewhat subjective from person to person. I think the Design Review Commission is very consistent on what they believe consistent character is and diverse and transitional is. So, applicants can always disagree with staff on the interpretation, but it's very difficult to disagree with the Design Review Commission because they're the final acting body on that.

Most of the time, what you'll hear from staff, because staff's role, once you submit an application, at time of [inaudible 00:46:24] review, we're going to tell you whether we're going to support the project or not, or how we can get to supporting the project. If we can get to supporting the project, our goal is to get you approved. If we think we're not going to be able to support it, we're going to let you at the beginning of the process so that you know while walking in this, the staff’s not going to support you. Most of our projects when we get to that stage, most of them are for approval, so working towards that. We don't see that conflict because usually we're trying to work with the applicant to get to some middle ground, to get an approvable project, which we’ll support. It's somewhat easier once you get to the DRC because a lot of the broader issues, we've somewhat lessened their impact. What neighbors see and what DRC sees is sometimes a very different project than what first came in.

Rob Dowling: Right. That makes sense. Yeah, a lot of those issues likely get flushed out through that planning process. No doubt. Excellent. We'll jumping over to a popular topic, you've already mentioned how many applications you've received over the course of the last year, just for ADU’s and JDU’s. If you wouldn't mind briefly talking about how the city of Los Altos has reacted to the state law changes and what it means for the residents.

Sean Gallegos: How the city has adopted the ADU regulation is consistent, and sometimes I think different than some of the other communities is, we do have the allowance for the 500 square feet junior ADU, which is attached to the primary residence and is part of the home. We do allow up to 150 square foot addition to the home. Again, no greater than 500 square feet total for the junior ADU. When it comes to ADU’s, we have two different types. We have detached ADU’s and attached ADU’s. We do allow automatically up to 850 square feet for an attached or detached ADU, even if you had already exceeded the maximum floor area lot coverage for the site.

A big distinction for attached ADU’s is attached ADU’s aren't constrained by stories so they can be multiple stories or they can be on a second story and as long as they comply with the height requirements for the district and for the home and as long as they provide the minimum kitchen size as required per code and then a bathroom size as required per and they provide the parking that's required or qualify for an exemption, which there's a very long list of exemptions and most properties qualify for exemptions. Usually, they're within the required distance from bus stop and so most properties can qualify for an exemption. Then they don't have to provide parking.

For detached ADU’s we have a restriction of 16 feet and they're limited to one story in height. And if you're exceeding floor and lot coverage, you're limited to 850. We currently have daylight plane, but it's my understanding that's being eliminated. The housing community development has instructed us to remove the daylight plane from our ADU regulations. That will be coming forward I think in the future to council. When it comes to minimum setback, I think minimum setback between the ADU and the house is five feet. If you want to do a structure that's more than 850 square feet, then the ADUs have to be below the maximum lot coverage and floor area. That means if you want to do a 1,200 square foot two bedroom, it has to be at least 50% of the size of the house, no greater than 1,200, then it has to fall completely within the maximum lot coverage and floor area for the site. If your maximum floor area for the site is 4,000 and your house is at 3,800, then you only have 200 square feet, or if it's 2,800, then you can do the 1,200. I think that is a big difference that maximum coverage cap for ADU’s over 850 between us and a lot of communities. We do have that constraint.

Rob Dowling: Got it. Okay. That makes total sense. What would it mean for folks if the daylight plane regulation for ADU’s goes away? Would that enable folks to build ADU’s on top of their detached garages? Or what would it mean as far as the biggest change you would anticipate?

Sean Gallegos: It doesn't take away our 16-foot height or one-story requirement. Thankfully that's not eliminated. The reality is many of our lots are 10,000 square feet, 11,000 square feet and we have 4,000 square foot homes that’s sitting in a place and ADU in the backyard that's 16 feet tall, which means without the daylight plane, we will potentially see houses at four-foot setback with 13-foot-tall wall plates. With the pitch of the roof, there'll be up to 16. Right now, with the daylight plane, we're able to somewhat lower plate heights and shift the structure so that the impact isn't as severe to adjoining properties. Without the daylight plane control, there'll be able to be right against the property line at a four-foot setback with a 16-foot structure, right at the fence line.

Rob Dowling: Understood.

Sean Gallegos: That's what [inaudible 00:51:49] is going to require and that's what the state law stipulates so we’ll comply with what the state law requires.

Rob Dowling: Got it. Couple of questions that I'll jump into right now. I think a lot of the items that we discussed were covered in the last slide. I'm going to pull up this slide in the meantime. If there's any questions that I don't get to here in the next eight minutes certainly I guess first resource being online, but second being so that we can save Sean from a barrage of questions, but second resource of course, being you can reach out to of course, us, or you can always reach out to the planning department. With that said, can you talk a little bit about, you mentioned, there's a few questions related to bonus density for the ADU’s and how that works and how the additional square footage can get calculated in. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

Sean Gallegos: About how additional square footage could be calculated for ADU’s?

Rob Dowling: Correct.

Sean Gallegos: How it works is for any ADU over 850, it's required to be counted towards the total floor area and lot coverage for the site. Now, how it's established, if it's under 850, is we really don't count it. If your maximum floor area for the site is 4,000, then you can build a 4,000 square foot home for the site and then you can build another 850, which means you're exceeding the maximum floor and coverage by 850 square feet. But if you're exceeding 850 and your house is are already at the maximum 400, and you want to build 1,200, you can't because the cap is 850. If you want to build 1,200, then you would either have to shrink the size of your home to accommodate the 1,200 within the total floor area ratio maximum or below the maximum lot coverage ratio.

You're not able to combine unused floor areas. For instance, if your maximum floor area is 4,000 and you're coming in with a house at 3,650, and you have 350 leftover and you want to add it to the 850 cap and say, oh, I have 1200, it's not permitted. Again, you required to meet the maximum floor area ratio and coverage anytime you exceed 850 and that peak, the floor area ratio for the district becomes the cap for the house and the ADU combined. It's relatively important and I think that's a tool to try to... The state only requires we have to provide 850 and that's all we're providing. We're not required to provide a bonus beyond that, but we are required to provide ADU’s as long as they meet our standards. That's how the council is addressing it through our zoning ordinance.

Rob Dowling: Got it. Curious about impact fee, I guess, both in terms of, I guess there's impact fee question in regards to ADU’s. Can you talk a little bit about how fees for ADU’s are calculated from the city Los Altos’ perspective?

Sean Gallegos: The only fees that I've really dealt with, and I guess I'd have to get back and answer it back. If anybody wants to send me that question or I could forward it to you. We can post it. Because typically I've only been involved with the school related fees. School fees do apply for ADU’s where there's dispute by some homeowners. The school districts have been very vehement that you must pay their school fees. If the resident wants to challenge that they'd have to just go talk to each of the individual school districts. We're not involved with that process. Then I'd have to get back to you on the in-lieu fees. I don't want to answer incorrectly so I can get back to you in that and forward that information to you and if you want to post it. And or we will be coming out with a handout probably in the next three months or so, and we can always make that handout available on the website and answer that question for the public.

Rob Dowling: That sounds great. One question we had that’s out there is, is there an excavation moratorium or grading moratorium in the city of Los Altos? This might be more of a public works question, but maybe you can shed some light on that.

Sean Gallegos: No, I mean, some communities have moratoriums on grading during wet seasons and we don't really have that. Our design review findings for single family homes do talk about not creating significant regrading of sites. That is an issue that we would be looking at. If you submitted a project that you propose to significant regrade and move soil off the site, or add a tremendous amount of new soil to the site, then we would potentially be looking at that. One that's an issue of both stormwater control, we'd be concerned with how neighboring properties will be affected by storm water and then it's an issue of privacy. Because if you're potentially raising the site height higher than the adjoining properties, then you have the potential of increased privacy impact to neighboring properties plus, you have the impact of potential increased bulk impacts because the house will sit even higher than it did previously on the previous grade. Those become both findings issue and a design issue for the city if you do do that for single family.

ADU, we don't have any constraints for ADU’s. We do measure height off of the lowest natural grade. We don't measure height off of finished grade. You can raise your height if you'd like, I guess, but we're going to measure from the natural grade and that's going to constrain your height on your ADU.

Rob Dowling: Understood. One question that comes up. If a tree is considered protected, is there any solution to either remove or relocate the tree, if it's obstructing your construction?

Sean Gallegos: I mean, relocating could be an alternative that's probably the sole alternative. We've had many projects where homes are in the center or onto the center left of the site and we've had homes half the design around the tree. The expectation is if you're moving into Los Altos, you're moving into the community with full knowledge of what our regulations are and our tree [inaudible 00:58:21] regulations and the tree was there before you, before the house was there likely. Especially Oak trees have been there sometimes 100 years, 125 years. That was before the existence of the house and we have to respect and retain those trees. That's council's expectation.

Now there's a lot of fluidity on certain trees. There are certain trees that are sometimes very invasive, sometimes like eucalyptus trees. There are sometimes a hazard, a fire hazard. I think we've been more supportive with the removal sometimes of eucalyptus trees at times and there are many tree species that are undergoing a lot of stress and dying and or being diseased. Monterey Pines are one that seemed to have an issue. But overall, you need to preserve the trees and you need to be able to show us through the tree removal criteria that you qualify to remove them. If we do authorize the removal, council expects a one for one tree replacement. That's been a longstanding practice as long as I’ve been here. If we do allow the removal of a larger tree, like an Oak or Redwood, then you're going to expect the city's going to require a larger box tree, 24-inch box, 36-inch box, sometimes a 48-inch box, which can be very expensive. But if you're going to design a home potentially without consideration of preservation, and we do allow it, then we're going to require a large replacement of the same species on site and that's just an expectation from the public or from council, that we do one for one replacement of the same types. We don't traditionally see significant trees removed. It's just uncommon.

Rob Dowling: Got it. So, best practice is try to see if there's any possibility of working around that tree it sounds. Sorry, go ahead, Sean.

Sean Gallegos: Sometimes it's nearly impossible to preserve all trees. I mean, I've worked on sites where there are 10,000 square foot lot, and there's like 35 Redwood trees. We're reasonable too. I mean, if there's no potential for any development on the site because of a tree constraining your development right, then you have a right to request it for economic and other enjoyment and that's the reasonable basis. But if there's a reasonable way for you to develop a house and accommodated a tree, you have to pursue that. If you pursue it and, in your analysis, you find either it's cost prohibitive or the design that results doesn't really work in some important way, then you have to convey that to staff and show us why. Coming to the city and just saying you just don't want it isn't sufficient. You have to be able to have gone through the exercise of evaluating those alternatives and telling us why they don't work for you. Because when we get the DRC, you're going to have to defend that with the DRC or council, if a neighbor appeals a tree removal.

Rob Dowling: Understood. Okay, well, we're just at the top of the hour. Sean, I want to thank you again. I think this was a super informative session for hopefully everybody who is listening, especially, I know it was for me. We got through a lot of topics today in just an hour time. Sean, I appreciate you helping us out, going through everything quickly. Hopefully it gives the ability for anybody who's looking to construct a new single-family home in Los Altos, a good summary of everything that'll take and all the considerations that planning is looking at during that decision to keep the character of the community true. Thank you again, Sean. I appreciate all the time and you volunteering to help us out today.

Sean Gallegos: Thank you.

Rob Dowling: All right. Take care.