Neighbors Fight Proposed Two-Story Homes

This is the view the owners of a proposed home on Prunelle Court would have into an Eichler owned by one of Fan Zhang's neighbors. Photo by Fan Zhang -- from a ladder

Sometimes when you’re up against it, you have to move quickly. Fan Zhang did, and as a result he and his wife Tracy have bought their Eichler neighborhood precious time.

They rallied the neighborhood to fight a plan to build four two-story houses alongside Eichler homes – and they won round one.

“We may have won the first round, but we have no idea how it is going to turn out,” Fan says. “The developer backed out at the end of the hearing, and said they would redesign the project. But what kind of redesign, we have no idea.”

He adds, “We would like to do a rezoning to protect the neighborhood.”

On September 19 Fan first was notified that the impressively large, three-quarters-of-an-acre lot behind his home would soon be filled with four two-story homes, each in the 3,000-square-foot range.

Fan and Tracy, who are raising their two-year-old son, Enzo, in the neighborhood, where they have lived five years, understood that their privacy, and that of three neighbors, would be lost if the plan goes through, and that the character of their Eichler neighborhood would irrevocably change.

The resourceful Fan climbed on a ladder and used a tripod to place his camera at the height of the proposed home's second story window. Courtesy of Fan and Tracy Zhang

There was a zoning administrator’s hearing scheduled for the afternoon of September 30, so they had to act fast.

Fan, an engineer by profession, turned into a printer, printing up meeting notices and marking them “Stop intrusive two-story developments from destroying our Eichler neighborhood.”

He did research too, talking with residents of another Sunnyvale neighborhood that several years ago managed to protect themselves from tall neighbors by winning a single-story overlay, restricting their neighborhood to single-story homes.

The project is proposed for 1130 Prunette Court by the Elva V. Marital Trust and California Communities LLC. The affected Eichler homes are on Sheridan Drive.

There was never an Eichler home at 1130 Prunette, but rather a ranch house. Folks in the neighborhood say the site was where the original orchard owner lived, before his prunes and other fruit trees gave way to Eichler homes.

Fan went to city hall to talk to folks in the planning department.

“We brought up the Sunnyvale Eichler design guidelines,” Fan says. “But we came out of the meeting thinking that the zoning code was the only thing that mattered. The guidelines are just suggestions. You don’t have to follow them.”

He also contacted the Eichler Network for advice, and began investigating other strategies, including historic designation.

He also hauled a ladder and tripod onto the site, climbed to its top, and took photos looking into the homes that would be affected to see what he could see – and what their new neighbors would be able to see – if the homes got built as planned.

“They would have clear lines of sight into people’s homes,” he says.

Here's what the proposed Prunelle Court would have looked like. The developer has been asked to make some changes. From the city of Sunnyvale website

“Our style Eichler house, we have the living room, kitchen, dining room, and master bedroom on our back side. You would pretty much see most of our living quarters.”

He and Tracy reached out to their neighbors, showing photos, carrying a petition to the city, and getting to know people – many of whom they had never met.

They also turned to an old standby long recognized as valuable by many community organizers. Pizza.

“On Sunday we set up a tent in front of our house,” Fan says, and served pizza and chips. “We knocked on doors, ‘Come over, help us out.’ Quite a lot of people came over on Sunday."

“It was nonstop conversation,” he says of the tent gathering. “I didn’t get a chance to eat a slice.”

“We showed them pictures of what it would do to neighborhood. People are opposed. They’re just more cookie-cutter houses, and the second levels are very intrusive.”

“Then Monday and Tuesday we knocked on doors. We had stacks of paper that we handed out and stuck to neighbors' doors.”

More than 30 neighbors attended the zoning hearing. Courtesy of Fan Zhang

Fan and Tracy asked neighbors to sign two petitions. The first was asking the developer to build single-story homes, and to put a second story underground. The second, a fallback if the developer balked at the first, was to ask for more screening, trees, and tall fencing.

“In three days, from Sunday to Tuesday, we collected over 100 signatures from 81 households.”

One neighbor, Julie Liao, wrote to the city that, “my neighbors and I have worked hard to preserve the heritage of Eichler homes here,” and argued that the proposed homes would “disrupt the community’s interest in preserving this heritage site.”

While Fan and Tracy have won some supporters among the neighbors, not all agree that a second story ban would be good.

“Some neighbors may oppose the overlay,” Fan says. “One told me they’re thinking about adding a second story, because a 1,400-square-foot house for a family of five is seen as a little small in this day and age. I don’t know how much resistance we might get.”

“I never went to a public hearing before,” Fan says. More than 30 of his neighbors attended, all opposed to the two-story homes.

“I was surprised how many people showed up, first of all. The amount of people that came out to support us was really overwhelming. Four [of them] we had known before, but the rest we met through our outreach.”

Fan thought the city planner conducting the meeting asked the developer good questions. He paraphrases them: “Have you taken into consideration that you’re backing into Eichler houses with glass walls? Have you tried to plan into the style of these houses?

“He made suggestions,” Fan says of the planner.

“The city put the plan on hold until the developer comes back with a new design. Fingers crossed for a suitable outcome.”

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