San Francisco Chronicle

Atherton may OK townhomes to satisfy state building order

- By Sam Whiting

The town of Atherton — where the typical home is worth $8 million — will consider allowing the constructi­on of townhomes for the first time in the 99-year history of the exclusive Peninsula community as it struggles to meet a state mandate to add housing.

Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia said rezoning of the town would allow for constructi­on of as many as 10 units to a 1-acre parcel.

“The way to get to the numbers the state is requiring is to add townhomes,” DeGolia said.

Silicon Valley billionair­es have moved into the tiny town, population 7,000, over the past few decades, making it the richest place in America, but the wealth of its residents doesn’t exempt it from state mandates.

All cities statewide are under an order to increase housing or face both stiff fines and having the state take control of zoning. A public meeting in late April was attended by an estimated 100 Atherton residents, several

of whom suggested that the town resist the state mandate at all costs.

“Some people were so adamant to oppose the state mandate that they looked at paying the fine,” said DeGolia, who estimated that the fine would be $100,000 per month. The mandate will go into effect in 2023 and last for eight years, which would add up to about $9 million.

“There is absolutely no way we are going to do that,” DeGolia said. “To pay that sort of fine will require a vote of the people.”

The situation in Atherton is similar to that in Woodside and Portola Valley, all of which must add around 300 units over the next decade. When the town of Portola Valley recently considered zoning changes without the consent of individual property owners, it was met by the threat of legal action.

Woodside recently earned itself some unwanted attention and unfavorabl­e publicity when it announced its intention to circumvent the state mandate by declaring the entire town limit to be mountain lion habitat, and thereby not subject to the state housing mandate. That strategy backfired when the state attorney general ruled against it, and the order was quickly rescinded.

The Atherton meeting, held at HolbrookPa­lmer Park, was held because the Town Council is “intent on avoiding inflaming people,” DeGolia said.

At issue is the 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which will replace a less stringent state housing requiremen­t that will expire at the end of 2022. According to DeGolia, the current requiremen­t could be met by allowing for constructi­on of in-law units. The new mandate will require Atherton to increase its housing by a magnitude of 400% by 2031. This breaks down to 348 housing units in a town that only has about 2,200 homes at present.

“Some communitie­s can handle this because they have land” to build on, DeGolia said. “We have two parcels: One is the Town Hall land, and the other is Holbrook-Palmer Park.” The park is 22 acres, but it was willed to the town in the 1950s with the caveat that if it is no longer used as a recreation­al park the property will revert to Stanford University, he said.

Other possible locations for townhomes are the corporatio­n yard at the town center, which would yield perhaps five townhomes, and the schools. Atherton has eight of them, private and public, including the prestigiou­s Menlo School and Sacred Heart Schools. DeGolia said the inflow of students each day nearly doubles the town population. There is also the inflow of teachers.

In an effort to both provide teacher housing and add to the housing stock, the schools were offered an expedited deal to build higher density housing on campus for faculty and staff.

“This was an important strategy,” he said. “But no school took advantage of it.”

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