Critics: New rules for hillside houses would be ineffective

Some elected officials are rushing to create new rules that would restrict subdivisions on hillsides, but critics say those officials are upsetting an important public process in order to adopt laws that won’t effectively protect against erosion and landslides.

Councilmember Coralin Feierbach is worried a clause in Proposition 90, the statewide eminent-domain measure on the Nov. 7 ballot, will take away cities’ power to control subdivision zoning.

The City Council voted 3-2 Wednesday to fast-track a zoning amendment that would reduce developers’ ability to subdivide lots in hilly areas of the city in the same way it is already restricted in the steep San Juan Hills and Western Hills areas.

“Our general plan tells us to protect our hillsides,” Feierbach said, arguing that too much development can increase storm runoff and erosion, which accelerates the destabilization of hillsides.

Councilmembers Bill Dickinson and Warren Lieberman voted against rushing the amendment through the Planning Commission and City Council before Nov. 7 — and against a move to drop the requirement that a super-majority, or four of five councilmembers, approve the change.

Critics such as Warren Gibson, a former planning commissioner, says the proposal covers too few properties to effectively protect hillsides.

“If you really start to dig in and see how many lots there are this might apply to, there are really very few,” said Gibson, who also opposed Measure F, last fall’s successful ballot ordinance that requires voters to approve increased subdivision densities in designated hill regions. “There’s no real benefit, and then there’s the harm that’s done to the public process.”

There are 417 lots in Belmont large enough — 10,000 square feet or more, depending on the zoning area — to theoretically subdivide under current or proposed rules, but only 11 have enough street frontage to qualify, according to a report by Community Development Director Carlos DeMelo.

Belmont’s hills are known for slides, including ones that have threatened homes at 1557 Vine St. and 3266 and 3272 Lori Drive, and may have contributed to buckling pavement on Marburger Avenue.

But there’s little evidence that those slides were caused by overdevelopment of the slopes, according to Public Works Director Ray Davis.

“Anytime you build on a hill, to assume that hill will always be there is not necessarily a logical thing,” Davis said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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