County trims structure, but approves Moonrise project

12/08/2016

A residential proposal on Vision Road in Inverness mostly got the green light from the county deputy zoning administrator last Thursday, over objections that it could set a precedent for large home development. 

Yet the approval came with a few catches—most notably that a decades-old structure called the Windmill, which exceeds county height rules, must be truncated. Curtis Havel, the zoning administrator, also reduced the number of trees to be cut down from 50 to 44, and mandated that landscaping include only native plants.

The six-acre property, purchased a few years ago by San Francisco couple Alexis and Trevor Traina, contains a handful of handmade houses built by Howard Waite in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, which were largely unpermitted. The Windmill, a 1,600-square-foot structure that is 45 feet high and visible from some points on the Perth Trail, received a permit in 1983 only to be changed so drastically that the county no longer considers it legal. 

The Trainas’ proposal, divided into four phases of work, includes restoring three of four existing structures, demolishing one and building a new, roughly 4,000-square-foot single-family home. The project increases the development footprint from around 5,000 square feet to over 8,500 square feet of building area, including the three illegal structures that will be kept. That total square footage has ignited concerns and spurred about a dozen residents or groups to send letters of concern, though a number of people also wrote letters to the county in support of the proposal.

“We’re mindful of the fact that this is a community with no shortage of opinions,” Mr. Traina said at the hearing.

People who spoke to the concerns during a public comment period, including two representatives from the Inverness Association, primarily expressed reservations about the total square footage and the impact on views. Bridger Mitchell, who sits on the association’s design review committee, raised concerns about zoning issues, too.

Catherine Caufield, an association board member who lives on Vision Road, pitched a compromise: the removal of the windmill, which would shrink the footprint and nix what the group considers an unacceptable impact to the viewshed.

“It would reduce the number of square feet and that’s a big deal in this community… People are just upset,” she said. 

Debbie Daly, a musician who also was vocal in opposition to a residential proposal by Pandora founder Tim Westergren two years ago, also cited concerns about a precedent for large-scale residential development. “It’s just completely out of character for this forest neighborhood,” she said.

The association wrote in a letter to the county that its review of assessor’s records of 13 nearby properties showed an average residential development of 1,600 square feet, though properties ranged from 736 to 5,477 square feet of development.

But the county planner in charge of the project, Jocelyn Drake, said it was difficult to come up with an accurate average because assessor’s records don’t always include accessory structures. She believed the project is “in balance with what’s out there today.”

Sean Kennings, the Trainas’ architect, also stressed the incomplete nature of assessor’s records in a letter to the county. Two nearby properties had total footprints up to 7,000 square feet, he argued. 

For his part, Mr. Traina said the structures are “important to the community and the handmade house movement.” He also said that complaints about view impacts didn’t comport with the fact that many other houses in the area are visible from the street. 

“I think there’s no small amount of irony that we are the out-of-towners,” he said. “We see the not-so-subtle digs at the wealthy people from out of town coming to Inverness. There is no small amount of irony that we are the ones trying to preserve what independent experts have told us are architecturally significant, as well as locally beloved, structures, and the so-called Inverness Association are the people advocating for the destruction of these valuable buildings. How this dynamic occurred is puzzling to me.”

Mr. Havel, who said he had spent hours at the site and on the Perth Trail, emphasized that the development had to be considered as though it never existed, whether one calls the process retroactive legalization or preservation. 

He also reflected on what he called a strange situation: that no one ever objected to the thousands of square feet of unpermitted development until now. 

“This project is something of an enigma, in that Mr. Waite must have been an incredibly respected member of the community. He’s up there at the top of Vision Road for, it seems, like decades, just sawing away and pounding nails, building structures all the way up to 5,000 square feet of building area. And never once did the county receive a letter saying, “Hey, this is a violation of everything we hold dear.”…Never heard a peep. It just hits an incredibly odd tone for me,” he said.

Mr. Havel said he understood and shared some of the concerns about the building area, but that one project approval doesn’t give license for anyone to build whatever they want. “I hear loud and clear: people are fearful for the fabric of the community…But just because one person can [do it] doesn’t mean everyone can,” he said.

For him, the biggest question has revolved around the windmill. “It’s one I’ve really been wrestling with,” he said. 

He declined to retroactively permit the tall structure, despite support for doing so from Ms. Drake, who noted the absence of complaints about it during the decades of its existence and that demolition could create “more site disturbances.” But Mr. Havel said he could not “justify the excessive height,” and ruled that the structure needed to be brought down to its roof’s ridgeline, which is 21 feet.