A Hiccup in the Path To Preservation?

Well-preserved single-story homes make up a section of Sunnyvale's Fairwood area that received planning rejection for proposed single-story preservation -- the first time such rejection has happened in town. Is this a halt in the recent flow of approval, or a temporary glitch? The City Council will decide. Neighborhood photos by Dave Weinstein

Over the past two years, mini-Eichler neighborhood after mini-Eichler neighborhood in Sunnyvale has won protection against the menace of monster homes. The city has established seven such single-story districts in Eichler tracts since the spring of 2016, covering a total of 287 homes.

Good job, Eichler fans!

But is the good fortune fading?

Early in March, for the first time, the city’s Planning Commission turned down one neighborhood’s request to be granted such zoning. It was surprising – especially to the woman who was chief proponent of the rezoning, Susan Luschas.

Luschas, a tech worker with a background in science and engineering, and a 13-year resident of her Eichler home, was so sure the request would be granted that she attended the hearing all alone.

“I told everybody else to ‘stay home, don’t worry about it,’” she says, explaining, “People have to get up in the morning to work, they have young kids, they have lives.”

Flamingo Way demonstrates the overall low profile look of the neighborhood.

Other people who helped lead the neighborhood effort include Amy Johnson and Darby Flook, Sinziana and Paul Berevoescu, and Michael and Petra Ligthorst.

Still, while no one showed up to argue against the measure, in a split vote the commissioners voted no, recommending to the City Council that the zoning change be denied.

“We haven’t failed quite yet,” Luschas says. The council will consider the matter in late April.

Luschas was blown away by the denial by the commission, because she said her neighborhood’s case was as strong as any of the successful applications. One of the successful overlay zones is adjacent to her area, which includes portions of Firebird, Flamingo, and Dunholme ways.

“What was the difference with our application and the others? I paid the same fee. I got as many signatures as everybody else. Our application met all the guidelines, like everybody else.”

Among the objections voiced by commissioners, she says, were:

* Single-story overlays are undermining Heritage Preservation District

* Not enough neighbors coming out to support

*  Our neighborhood is in decline

* 2009 Eichler Design Guidelines are enforced and sufficient

* The plan restricts multi-family habitation

This page from Susan Luschas's presentation to city officials demonstrates how privacy is lost when a two-story neighbor arrives. Presentation and self portrait courtesy of Susan Luschas

Steve Meier, an Eichler owner in nearby Fairbrae who supports the zoning changes, blames politics for the planners' denial. “Sunnyvale has been okaying a lot of office space, so there is a housing crisis,” he says.

“So neighbors and the planning commission and city are pro-housing now and are against anything that is potentially in the way. Some of them feel that restricting Eichlers to one story is reducing the number of housing units.”

“But they’re not making additional units in these remodels. They’re just using them as additional living space. So it’s really faulty logic. But that’s what’s driving people.”

Luschas managed to get owners of 20 of the 29 homes in her corner of the Fairwood tract to approve the overlay. In Sunnyvale, because of the way these zones are allowed, and the process paid for, proponents work small. The minimum number needed for an overlay change is 20.

Susan Luschas has a full-time job but has taken the time required to preserve quality of life in her neighborhood.

“The more homes you have, the more signatures you need and the more money you need,” Luschas says. She acknowledges that by going with a larger number of homes more would be accomplished.

But, she adds, “I work full time and I have two children. I don’t have time to work to protect every home in Sunnyvale. And I know my neighbors but I don’t who lives [a few blocks away]. Who’s going to give me $150 (for the application fee) if they don’t even know me?”

In addition to taking the neighborhood’s case to the City Council, Luschas is doing more to preserve Eichlers not just in her neighborhood, but everywhere they are threatened by two-story neighbors and second-story additions.

And she’s calling on data to do it.

She argues, as do others who have looked into the matter, that setting up a single-story district to ban two-story homes does not cause home values in the zone to decrease. In fact, the opposite can happen

“There are actually buyers out there who will only buy in single-story overlay neighborhoods because they like the Eichlers and they want to make sure their investment is protected,” she says, adding, “That’s happened in this neighborhood.”

But the incident of one buyer walking away from an Eichler because it is not protected counts as anecdotal evidence only, Luschas says. Hard data is more convincing, she says, when talking to homeowners who say, “Oh, a single-story overlay would drop the value of my home.”

This chart shows red marks, representing homes in single-story districts, versus blue marks, representing homes not in such districts, to show that home values are not harmed by such designation.

Working with the help of real estate broker Kevin Swartz of the Erdal Team, who has made a similar case in the past, Luschas took all the data on home sales in Sunnyvale’s overlay districts and compared them to comparable sales in non-overlay district.

She looked at districts that take in Eichlers, and districts that cover other homes. She notes that a similar task was undertaken by an Eichler owner in Palo Alto, with similar results.

Sunnyvale has fewer data points, because there are fewer Eichlers than in Palo Alto and fewer homes in overlay zones. Still, she says, the document she has produced tells its story clearly.

The conclusions:
No historic evidence that SSCDs (single-story combining districts) reduce home values in Sunnyvale.
No historic evidence that SSCDs are reducing expansion or additions.

“If I were to buy an Eichler today, I definitely would not buy it if it were not in a single-story overlay,” Luschas says.

“It happened to me,” she says, with a ranch-style house she has a rental in Santa Clara in what had been an area of all one-story homes. When a much larger two-story home went up next door, she says, not only did it destroy the sense of privacy but, a realtor told her, her homes value dropped by $200,000.

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