Chuck and Patty Ward's corner of the world has always been a place of trees. Back in 1962, when the Wards moved into their brand-new Eichler subdivision in Sunnyvale, there were orchards of apricots stretching towards the horizon—and every home had cherry trees. "At least one," Patty recalls. "One of our friends had five."
"It was all cherry orchards," says 41-year resident Sidney Bernstein of the tract before it filled with houses. "We made cherry liqueur," his wife Roberta remembers.
Over the years, while the cherries have died and the apricots were replaced by subdivisions, the tract, officially dubbed Rancho Verde by Eichler Homes when built, retains a special feeling because of its greenery. The trees—redwoods, oaks, black walnut, and more—provide shade, a sense of peace, and privacy for the glass-walled homes.
But that too has been chipping away as once open, or half-open parcels have been filled with high-density housing. Last year, neighbors took a stand when a four-acre, park-like site occupied by a church was slated to be crammed with 42 two-story houses. "The word 'shoe-horned' comes to mind," says neighbor Jan Scicinski.
The battle proved to be something of a triumph for the neighborhood, with the city of Sunnyvale turning the 70-home subdivision, and a portion of the former church property, into a 'single-story overlay' district. That means no homes in the Eichler tract can add on second-story additions—and homes on the portion of the church parcel closest to the Eichlers cannot be more than a single story.
But the triumph did not, alas, protect the trees on the church parcel. Scicinski, who used to drive out of his way on his way home to enjoy the trees that once graced the site, misses them deeply. And when fellow neighbor Pat Shea drove home after they were gone, he says, "I almost missed the turn the first time because the trees were down."
Still, Rancho Verde (today neighbors call it either Fairbrae 5, since it was one of several Fairbrae additions developed nearby by Eichler, or call it nothing at all) is definitely on a roll. The neighborhood, always a friendly place, is becoming more so because of friendships forged during the year-and-a-half effort to protect its privacy.
"The whole process of rezoning the neighborhood definitely brought our neighborhood closer together," says Suzanne Shea, Pat's wife and a leader of the rezoning effort whose backyard faces the church property. "Many friendships were strengthened and many new ones were formed."
"The friendships got so close," says Pat, "that they trusted us with their dog when they went out of town," referring to Jan Scicinski and Anna Scicinska and what Jan calls their "sofa hound."
And the neighborhood, where children once flourished, then became virtually extinct, is again filled with playpens and strollers as a younger generation of families moves in—driven, often enough, by the same motivation that sent original owners here. It is a wonderful modern neighborhood near high-tech jobs and good schools—with home prices several notches lower than similar Eichlers in Palo Alto.
The battle started when neighbors whose houses bordered the church property got wind of the proposed development. "We noticed surveyors on the lot in late August 2006 and called the city to find out if there had been a planning application," Suzanne says. "There had been."
The proposed homes would have looked directly into the backyards of 21 neighbors. Fear spread through the entire neighborhood, not just those immediately affected. "I thought it was going to change the entire character of the neighborhood," Rancho Verde owner Glenn Hendricks says. "Ohmigod," Suzanne thought, "we do need to get on this!"
About 15 years earlier, a similar high-density 'infill' project was built next to a group of Eichlers a few blocks away, replacing an orchard that had surrounded the landmark 1870s Briggs-Stellings house. "The Eichlers were all ruined by it," says Suzanne.