Letter: House exceeds height limit in Montara

Letter to the editor

Posted by on Tue, May 29, 2007

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Rob Carey

My wife and I just moved to Montara with our 10 year-old son, and we feel like we just entered paradise. Sure, it can get a little chilly when the fog comes in and settles for weeks or months, but we’re coming from a decade in Moss Beach so we know the drill. We’d had our eyes on Montara for a long time because the place just seems so charming. We fell in love with it one Halloween when we discovered the amazing community spirit around the witches’ house, with every home in the neighborhood catching the good vibes and doing their best to joyfully mark the occasion.

The witches’ house is just a few bocks away now and we’re very happy here. There is something a little closer, however, that is more troubling- even scary. I’m talking about a certain house being built at 1050 Acacia. There are obviously some serious issues with this development, and a knowledgeable neighbor by the name of Rob Carey has done amazing work to unearth the details of what has gone wrong with this project. As a licensed civil engineer, Rob is well qualified to read a design spec and see how the building fails to adhere to what was planned and approved. He is particularly motivated because his property is so located to be severely impacted by the developer’s apparent deviousness.

So what’s wrong with 1050 Acacia? Where to start. First off, one can see at a glance that it’s too high. I don’t have anything against the general appearance of the house (from my viewpoint) other than what seems like a clearly anomalous height, sitting upon a hill towering over the neighbors. But apparently the hill is not of natural origin. According to Rob there was a defective survey performed which indicated a much higher natural grade and consequently the house was built with the first floor significantly elevated above the original ground, requiring the developer to bring in truckloads of fill, hence the appearance of the house sitting on its own little hill. This isn’t just a subjective issue; there are zoning regulations limiting how high the house can be and this house unambiguously exceeds those regulations. Rob’s calculations show that the overall height is about 30 feet over the natural grade, though it was approved to be 27’ 1" and the legal limit is 28 feet. This might not seem so egregious to constitute a reason for major concern if not for the impact such a change has on the surrounding properties. Rob’s house, directly adjacent on Tamarind, now seems dwarfed by the structure, and his privacy is markedly reduced as the new neighbors’ backyard patio will be at the level of the top of his fence and will provide a clear view down into his bedroom.

Drainage patterns have also been grossly affected. The new artificial hill on which the property stands will result in flow to the west instead of the natural downhill pattern to the south and southwest, again directly onto Rob’s property. My understanding is that recent history has provided Montarans with plenty of cause for concern about which way the water flows when the rains pelt hard. Again, the issue is not that changes can’t occur but that they should be planned for and the plans must be approved. In this instance, the developer seems to be altering nature’s designs on his own personal whim at the expense of nearby residents and without any official approval.

Why am I so concerned for my new neighbor? The house doesn’t really affect me much, other than visually. It’s not entirely an altruistic concern. My property sits two lots north of 1050 Acacia and the lot between mine and the offending project is currently prepared for construction of a new house by the very same developer. I’ve looked at the plans, and not being a licensed civil engineer I don’t see any glaring problems. The point is that this is effectively meaningless if the final house that’s built is not built according to those plans. Having seen what Rob is going through with the 1050 Acacia development I now have little trust in the process that is designed to ensure that new structures are built in such a way that the flavor of the community is not seriously altered to the detriment of the current residents. It would seem crucial that the error is not repeated of working from an incorrect assessment of natural grade. The onus of proof should be on the developer as his credibility in this matter is clearly in doubt. Before proceeding with approval of his new design it should be mandatory that any imported fill be removed from the site and a competent survey performed by a third party.

Rob Carey has been diligent in his analysis of the situation at 1050 Acacia and has taken appropriate steps in contacting county authorities to notify them of his concerns. He has been persistent but polite and has written numerous letters to county supervisors and managers requesting action. From my perspective, it appears to be like spitting in the wind. According to county records, for instance, an order was given to the developer to hold off on pouring concrete surrounding the site but he proceeded to do so anyway. I wonder if his calculation is that the slap on the wrist he might eventually receive will be more than made up for by the additional profit he will receive by selling a home with a slightly better ocean view.

As a new resident of this wonderful community, I hope to spend the first of many years here enjoying the community and exploring the natural beauty of this very special place. I hope I don’t have to be weighed down in a legal battle with a voracious developer, working hard to rally support from my neighbors to join in the fight as Rob has done so effectively. Though I’d rather just sit back and enjoy life, I do feel it is important to stand up for uniform enforcement of the agreed upon standards of decent conduct for the way new properties are planned and developed. I hope my new community will stand with me in this effort.

This letter is not intended to prove the case against the developer in regard to the existing project at 1050 Acacia. Rob has done a fine job of that already and the evidence is admirably compiled at his informational page at http://1050Acacia.info/select. In addition to full details of the progress of this situation, there are links provided for contacting county authorities via email. What would be great is if readers who share Rob’s and my concerns for this and future similar situations, and you can be sure there will be more, contact our elected representatives and demand accountability

Joel McKinnon
1030 Acacia St.
Montara


Two comments, Joel:

There is a similar-sounding problem going on at 715 George Street.  You might want to get in touch with Deborah Lardie who has been fighting the County on this - Deborah is next doors to 715 George.  If you e-mail me off-line at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), I can give you her e-mail address.

I am particularly concerned about the drainage issues, as I am now on an official County committee that is supposed to start studying this problem if we can ever get a meeting going.  There is supposed to be a drainage plan for each project, and your neighbor Rob should be able to evaluate the plan and whether it has been carried out.  The drainage plan, unfortunately, is never made available to the public during the public review process, but I think you may be able to get a copy or some information about this from the Department of Public Works.  I would appreciate any info you can provide on whether there is a plan, and how well it is being carried out.  This is one of the key issues I hope to be working on with the County.

Stephen Lowens

Stephen,

I assume you’ll be hearing from Rob. He’s pretty thorough and I’m fairly sure he’ll be on top of this aspect of the issue. Check his informational site first: http://1050Acacia.info/select.

It strikes me that this- the drainage issue- might be the best line of attack. The height problem is a serious concern to neighbors whose privacy is impacted and to the general aesthetic of the neighborhood, but it can be passed off as people griping about someone else having a better view. What’s more important here is how the extra height was achieved. The developer had to significantly alter the grounds to make it appear that the house was within the legal height limit. In doing this it was unavoidable to alter the natural drainage patterns. Now you’re talking about something that could potentially impact a lot of people and cost a lot of money for the county to rectify in the event of a major storm. That seems like something that should get the county’s attention.

I’m not a Montaran, but do live on the West side of Hwy 1 in HMB, and have a strong interest in enforcing zoning regulations and ensuring that developers do abide by the restrictions the community places on them. It is overcrowded enough with only such (inadequate) regulations as we already have in place on the Coastside, and the last thing we need is for developers to conclude that they can have their plans approved and then completely disregard them, knowing no one will ever notice or care, or ensure that they are followed. Isn’t it like having an FDA that passes laws against selling rotten meat, but then never inspects slaughterhouses or prosecutes wholesalers who sell meat with e. coli in it?

Anyhow I have checked out Rob’s site he seems persuasive enough. Though three feet is not a gigantic amount of elevation, the drainage issue is serious, and anyhow it seems there is a serious matter of principle involved here. I do hope the county inspectors will get back on the case and do what they are, ahem, presumably paid to do in cases like this.

Matt F. Oja, HMB

For the last several decades at 1050 Acacia Street, there was a simple one-story building with an ample backyard and many tall trees. It was torn down and in its place two large two-story buildings with minimal backyards (denuded of prior trees) are planned. This building is just the first of the two. The square footage of the two homes vastly exceeds what was previously on this site.

The Coastside has a design review process for the construction of new homes that has been formalized and can be quite effective. Unfortunately, in the case of 1050 Acacia Street, misleading documents were submitted to the Design Review committee. The documents submitted for 1050 Acacia had diagrams indicating the floorboards of the first floor of the home would be close to the existing ground level.

In actuality, an enormous foundation was built and a great deal of dirt was installed that raised the ground level above natural grade. I was an eye-witness of the delivery of the enormous amount of dirt and I called the County to protest on August 9, 2006. I was stunned to find the County had no real interest in the matter.

The resulting structure is unnaturally elevated and does not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood. The unnatural height of this building and its large westward windows destroys the privacy that we have had since my husband bought this property in the 1970s.

In short: the documents submitted to the design review process for 1050 Acacia Street do not reflect what was actually built. My neighbor Rob Carey has conscientiously attempted to explain this situation to the County Building Dept in order to get them to address this problem, but they do not seem to understand.

Rob Carey is a licensed professional engineer. While similar talent may exist at the County offices, it was not deployed in a timely matter on this project. Now that the structure is already built, and it is almost 9 months later, the County seems stuck in a mode of justifying their previous actions, and unwilling to admit their mistake.

A great deal of community support is needed to stop this kind of building from reoccurring in our neighborhood. I invite all those who can help to notify the County of the problem.

Linda Rutherford

You can find a brief summary of the 1050 Acacia issue here:
http://1050acacia.info/brief

Regarding the drainage issue:  I never saw a drainage plan for 1050 Acacia in the files at the Planning & Building Dept.  I recently sent an email to the County regarding the drainage issue, including a request for a copy of any drainage plan.  As with almost all communication to the County regarding this project, there has been no response.  Also, since the submitted and approved design showed no fill dirt and the elevation contours on the submitted site plan were grossly defective, any original drainage plan would be illegitimate.

The most recent email to the County regarding the drainage issue can be found in the documents section on this webpage (email date: 5/23/07) :

http://1050acacia.info/select

Useful information for contacting the County can be found here:

http://1050acacia.info/county

and an Organization Chart for the Planning & Building Dept is here:

http://1050acacia.info/county/County-Planning-Org-Chart-Handout-May-2007_EDIT_rev-00.pdf

Rob Carey

Development happens, you leave a place for a time and when you return there are buildings where there once were fields and trees. Having a dad in construction and a member of this ever growing world I have learned to see the benefit that comes with this transition. There is something different about this house though. They chose to not follow the rules for their own gain and to the detriment of those around them. I can see how someone building a house may decide later that they want to make some changes to an original design plan but not to the point of bringing in enough dirt to raise parts of the property up several feet. That is something that is planned and any credible developer would have put into their plans and had approved prior to construction.

I have been coming out every summer to visit my dad in Montara for a decade now. I have always loved the location and the people. It is an amazing area where you can feel close to the big city and yet have your quiet, private space. Something changed however on this visit, I came back after a long trip, laid down in bed and as I looked up all I could see was a house, and even worse, windows. My dads house is directly opposite 1050 Acacia. All that separates the two is a fence and the house is so tall even the lower windows see over the fence and into the house and yard.  This is exaggerated by the upstairs bedroom having not a regular window, but instead glass double doors. There is practically no space in either of the two back bedrooms or the backyard that they can’t see into. My dads side of the fence is about 6’ tall however with all the fill on the other side of the fence even a child can look right over it into the yard and bedrooms.  It changes the entire feel of the house. 

The building is obviously too tall for the space, you can look at it and see how much higher off the ground it sits than those around it. The first floor has been built well up of off where the ground originally was. So high that their back porch is as high as our fence.

The laws on land development and construction are there for a reason, to simply ignore them leads to a slippery slope where anyone can decide to make their house bigger and taller than the one next door. I am surprised at the complete inaction of the local authorities and that they simply ignored the initial issues and now act like there is nothing that can be done. This kind of attitude is unacceptable.

I urge all of you go to the website listed in the comments above and to let the county planning officials know that you want the laws enforced at 1050 Acacia. My dad has spent countless hours over the last many months documenting the problems, writing letters and telling everyone (even county officials who prefer to not hear it) about this and it would be helpful if they could hear it from others who care about the quality of life here on the Coastside. Then maybe I could get him out of the house to go see more of this wonderful land.

As a very happy resident of Montara, I am very dissappointed and also alarmed that such flagrant violations of building regulations are happening here, and no one in a position of authority (paid by taxpayers) is doing anything about it.

I saw the house at 1050 Acacia.  It is clearly taller than the surrounding houses, and a small hill of about 3 feet has been built underneath the foundation in the front of the house.  At the back of the house on 1050 Acacia the ground seems to be built up about 5 feet! 

As previously posted, if the residents to be of 1050 Acacia sit in their backyard, they will be able to easily see over the tall fence at 1024 Tamarind St (the house behind the back yard).

This hill was clearly built so that 1050 Acacia would have a partial ocean view which commands a higher sale price.  A house that would have been developed according to regulations would not have had an ocean view.  The developer flagrantly violated regulations, and the motive seems to be pure greed.

The developers should be prohibited from building anything further in Montara, and the house that was built with all of the violations should be torn down.  The lot should be sold to someone who will build in a neighborly spirit and to the letter of the law.

It has been months since Rob Carey first notified authorities about the violations.  Why are they unwilling to address this issue?

To find more information about the house at 1050 Acacia in Montara go to http://1050acacia.info/brief.

Sincerely,
Ceilia Marx
Montara, CA

Ceilia and others,

While I too am worried about developers ruining the coastside and am willing to spend money and time to make sure the law is followed, I’m not sure that the issues with this house are being characterized fairly.

For example, several descriptions in this thread, including yours, describe the house as if it is on it’s own little hill. But that’s not quite right. The house at 1050 Acacia is level with it neighbor to the right. True, the ground at 1050 is higher than the neighbors to the rear and left—but would be higher with or without fill.  It is also worth pointing out that all of the houses there are on a larger hill which descends roughly to the southwest. Thus there are many cases where lots are a little higher than their neighbors, as the lots “step down” the hill. Perhaps Mr. Nelson, the builder, did not “step down” his lot as he should have, I don’t know, but I don’t see a “hill.”

Another often mentioned issue is the problem of privacy. It is said that the future owners of 1050 will have a generous view of the back neighbor’s house, windows, and yard. Well, maybe. On the 5000 sq. ft. lots here in California houses are awfully close together. So what can be done? Exactly what the builder at 1050 has done—he has planted a dense screen of vegetation along the back fence. Here is the actual view from the first floor window of 1050:

Finally, the claim that all of this was done to obtain a better ocean view for the house: Maybe. But if so the builder went to great expense and risked controversy for nothing. I went up to the second floor and looked out the rear windows. You can see the ocean through the trees. Not a great view but a view. Then I got down on my knees to simulate a shorter house and looked out the window again. No change at all in the view as far as I could tell.

I don’t know if Nelson violated any laws. But it does strike me that the house would still “loom,” would still be “invasive” of privacy, etc even if it was shorter—it’s a two-story house build up close next to one story houses.

I’m all for protecting the coast and the character of our community. I’m also for picking our battles wisely.

—Darin

Darin, I think you are right when you say, “Perhaps Mr. Nelson, the builder, did not “step down” his lot as he should have…” The house immediately to the West (on Tamarind Street) is two levels with steps down to the front living room. By using a split level foundation, the builder of this other house, followed the natural contours of the lot. Too bad that was not done.

Instead, this builder used the highest point of the lot as a baseline and added dirt before starting to build, in order to change the natural contour of the lot, creating an artificially level plateau (or whatever we want to call this artificial level.)

The important thing to remember is that none of recontouring of 1050 Acacia was in the plan that was submitted to the County permit process, or that was submitted to local Coastside Design Review.

And unfortunately, the survey submitted to the County and the Coastside Design Review was erroneously incomplete. It failed to note the height of the ground on the West fence. This is highly unusual for a survey. I am surprised that the County accepted a survey that was incomplete.

The property immediately to the North cannot be used as a reference guide to “natural contour” of the area. The prior owner of that property also raised the level of the dirt several years ago when she installed a patio and a lawn. She had her lot leveled so that rolled, pre-grown lawn could be laid down on an even, level surface.

On the question of privacy, there is no photo of a second floor outlook.  If you took a photo while you were inside the vacant house, that would be interesting,

This builder did not follow the plans and drawings submitted and approved by the Coastside Design Review. We were all misled by drawings submitted at that time, that show the house lower down, relative to the West fence. These drawings show a first floor living area, largely below the West fence. Instead, the first floor was raised to be mostly above the West fence, an the entire house became more imposing than it appeared on building proposals.

Thank you for interest in this topic.
Linda Rutherford
Tamarind Street Resident
Montara

Hi Linda,

You asked about a photo from the second story. I did not take a photo there because Mr. Nelson, who was with me, was a little nervous about having a photo shot of his neighbor’s backyard, windows, etc. Given the privacy controversy I could see how not only looking into the yard but letting strangers photograph it might be seen as fuel to the fire!

However, I did carefully observe the view of the yard and house from the second story windows and what I saw was this. While standing I could easily observe that neighbor’s windows, rear door, and almost all of the yard, except for a small portion at the rear of the lot blocked by the trees and rear fence.

From the “on my knees” posture I could still observe the house, windows, doorway, etc. Only a small additional part of the rear of the lot was obscured by my lower position.

My conclusion, therefore, was that in terms of privacy there was no real issue—the same loss of privacy would have occurred no matter the amount of fill. The problem in terms of privacy is that we have a two-story house within forty feet or so of a one-story house.

And, of course, in the future this loss will be mitigated by the growth of the more than two-dozen trees planted along the back edge of the property.

In terms of whether the plans where followed I have no new information. I do not know if there was any deception involved on anyone’s part. I also know nothing about water flow, etc so cannot comment upon run-off and drainage issues. I also suspect that a difference of two or three feet, given the slant of the hillside and given the two-story/one story issue, would not much change the “looming” aspect, but I haven’t investigated this beyond observing the many two story houses in Montara that seem to “loom” over their one-story neighbors.

Whether the law was followed and whether the structure negatively impacts water flow are serious issues that seem very relevant to 1050 and I’d love to see more exploration of those themes.

However, I believe, based on my site visit, that the claims of avoidable loss of privacy and attributing a motive of “getting a better ocean view” to the builder are false claims.

The question in my mind is whether what happened here is the result of a “bad developer” casting aside community concerns or whether this is just the result of “slop” in the law and in the process.

With only limited resources where do we focus our energies?

—Darin

Comment 11
Wed, October 10, 2007 2:50pm
Rob Carey
All my comments

The 1050 Acacia case involves violations of the San Mateo County Zoning Regulations and Grading Ordinance, non-compliance with approved plans, the County’s failure to enforce the law regarding these violations, and the issuance of false information by multiple high-level County officials to cover up these violations.

These are the most significant issues for the Community in regards to 1050 Acacia (not the view from the second floor window).  The violations have without question degraded the area, but for the wider community the issue of holding the County accountable for their actions has much more far-reaching consequences for good government and appropriate development.  The community deserves a planning and building process that is fair, and operated with integrity and transparency.

To learn more about this case, please go to: http://1050Acacia.info

Helpful information on the website includes the ‘Summary and Violations Details’ document found on the first page and the “A” Exhibits (annotated photos) and the “B” Exhibits (annotated plans) found on the Exhibits page:
http://1050acacia.info/exhibits/abd-exhibits.html
Exhibit H2 found in the “A” set helps illustrate the height issue.

Consider these two examples:

1) The approved plans showed only a few inches of fill dirt around the foundation and a 6’ high fence on the south side.  The Developer built a fence that reaches a height of 9’-6” on the South side and placed a large amount of dirt fill around the building, reaching depths of about 3’ at the Southwest corner.  This is a violation of multiple zoning regulations (fill dirt at perimeter wall and fence height) and the grading ordinance. The County did not enforce the applicable law and did not require compliance with the approved plans - in fact the County issued false information to cover up the issues.
 
2) The County claims that the ‘natural grade’ for determining the house height is Elev 191.7.  Since the first floor is at Elev 193.0, the County is claiming that the original grade (under the rear roof peak) is just 16” below the first floor, i.e. at a point a few inches below the house siding - i.e. above the existing dirt fill.  This is absurd and easily verified as a fraudulent claim .  It is also the basis for the County’s evaluation of house height.  In fact the house is about 30’ above the natural grade, not the 27’ claimed by the County.  This is a major non-compliance issue and a zoning violation.
 
If you believe anything on the website is not correct please feel free to let me know.  I have tried to be as accurate and factual as possible.
 
Please let me know if you have any questions or constructive suggestions.

Rob Carey

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I applaud Mr. Carey for doing the hard work of researching the details of what he perceives to be unfair and illegal actions by the developer in constructing this house and by the county officials who appear to have sided with the developer against the weight of Mr. Carey’s detailed evidence. My only regret in reviewing the original letter and the subsequent comment thread is in speculating as to the developer’s motives regarding the reasons for the apparently anomalous height and how this derailed the conversation toward the question of the view from the upstairs windows.

As Mr. Carey points out, “the case involves violations of the San Mateo County Zoning Regulations and Grading Ordinance, non-compliance with approved plans, the County’s failure to enforce the law regarding these violations, and the issuance of false information by multiple high-level County officials to cover up these violations.” These are major allegations which, if true, constitute a serious breach of public trust and should be given a fair hearing in a court of law, rather than simply brushed aside.