Danville Express

Newsfront - August 3, 2007

Danville must reconsider house plans for ridgeline

Judge rules that council was wrong to deny developer's plans

by Natalie O'Neill

A county judge ruled last Friday that the Town Council must reconsider approving a house that would mar one of Danville's most sweeping ridgeline views.

The court found the council didn't have enough evidence to deny plans for the 7,124-square-foot house off Lawrence Road on a major hillside crest in Danville. Council members must now take another look at the application, knowing the court's verdict.

"If there's no new evidence, that generally means they are going to have to change their decision," said Robert Ewing, town attorney.

In November, the council rejected plans for the lot, which is off Camino Tassajara, noting that building the residence would "result in the loss of the scenic view of the ridgeline and the sense of identity the area imparts."

The council members pointed to a hillside ordinance that cites development shouldn't interfere with the natural character of the hillsides. And the Planning Commission suggested the residence be moved downward, to a lower section of the 10-acre parcel.

But SkyVilla - the company developing the ridge - says landslides and poor soil make the ridgeline location the safest, most feasible spot for building on the parcel. In court last Friday, SkyVilla's attorney argued that building in the town's preferred location - below the ridgeline -would necessitate an even more artificial hillside appearance.

"There would be an extraordinary amount of construction (at the lower hillside) ... It would be utterly unlike the way it currently looks," said David Bowie, SkyVilla's attorney.

Taking this into account, it's not really a decision based on the town's ordinance, he said.

Robert Combs, who serves on the Danville Planning Commission, said the lower hillside location is the lesser of two evils.

"It's going to look artificial no matter what. There's no great plan," he said, considering the property's slope and soil make it very difficult to build on.

"It's a tough piece of land," Ewing said.

What frustrated some members of the Planning Commission, Combs said, was that the company never earnestly explored other parts of the property for building.

"They had a beautiful drawing for the ridgeline but the drawings for the other properties were amateurish and designed to look horrible ... It was obvious what they wanted," he said.

Jeff Britton, the manager of SkyVilla, who has been pushing for approval for years, did not return phone calls by press time.

As of last August, the Planning Commission had reviewed the building application four times. They encouraged Britton to explore three sites, on the top, middle and lower hillsides of the property.

During last week's ruling, the judge looked at past staff reports, geotechnical reports and testimony from an expert civil engineer, before making the decision to invalidate the town's resolution.

"The judge found the burden was on us to have substantial evidence," Ewing said.

The ongoing approval process has been time consuming and expensive and is part of a trend in Bay Area planning, Bowie said. Before the 1980s, building residences generally had to meet objective guidelines - like specific height or length regulations - but now guidelines are also based on aesthetics and other subjective elements.

From here, the council will meet with the city attorney and the application that has been pending will go before the Town Council in September, Ewing said.

"I think it's important to preserve the ridgeline for future generations," Combs said.


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