To save three heritage trees, the Menlo Park City Council rejected a developer's plan to build two houses at 1976 Menalto Ave.
In doing so through a 4-1 vote, the council sided with 21 neighbors of the property who had signed online petitions opposing the development proposal, which the city's planning commission approved in November.
Michelle Daher, who lives next to the site, had appealed the planning commission's decision to the council. Not only would the trees -- a magnolia, Chilean Lantern and Valley oak -- be cut down, but the excavation and construction work also would damage the mature oak tree on her property, she argued.
"We live in Menlo Park because of the trees, that's the primary reason why we're here," Daher told the council at Tuesday night's meeting.
Billy McNair, who owns the property but doesn't live there, told council members that "countless alternatives" to the submitted development design had been explored to make the project more acceptable to neighbors, but "none of them were viable."
Council Member Kirsten Keith said while she respects the planning commission's decisions, the neighborhood opposition convinced her to grant the appeal. "I have to say, I'm not comfortable with this one," she said.
The lot is an unusual "T" shape with a long driveway, according to a planning department memo. Without the driveway, the building area is 112 feet wide and 54 feet deep. If the city's standard front and rear setbacks of 20 feet were applied, the buildable depth area would be about 14 feet, according to the city.
The planning commission approved McNair's request to remove the three trees and reduce setbacks to 13 feet in front and 11 feet in back so he would have enough room to build two homes with parking on the parcel.
Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs told the council Tuesday that the variance was approved because it "made a lot of sense."
"If you take 20 feet off the front and back and it's only a 52-feet-deep lot, it's essentially unbuildable," Riggs said.
Vice Mayor Ray Mueller said he didn't think two homes should be squeezed onto the lot.
"I think it changes the quality and character of this neighborhood to try and fit this much density into this small T lot in the center of the neighborhood," Mueller said.
Mayor Peter Ohtaki cast the one dissenting vote. At the beginning of the council's discussion, Ohtaki revealed that McNair was his Realtor on two transactions in the past year but said he was informed by the city attorney that he didn't need to recuse himself because the business relationship was "not a source of income to me."