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[whitespace] Hakone Foundation surprises Council at meeting over rental of cottage

Saratoga--Hakone Foundation board members spoke out for the first time May 11 against the city's plan to rent the gardens' caretaker's cottage as an affordable-housing unit.

City Council members seemed surprised as Hakone board member Stewart Lennox presented a list of concerns the foundation has about the city renting out the cottage.

Lennox said the board is considering the safety of tenants because the house is located adjacent to Hakone Gardens' main parking lot.

Lennox said that a search of the Hakone Foundation's meeting minutes revealed that no vote had ever been taken on the fate of the cottage in past years. It was a vote, he said, that should have been required by the board for decisions made concerning any portion of the property.

He said that the foundation has the exclusive right to rent the property, and that the city should look into the legality of placing a tenant in the building.

Lennox also explained that the foundation may begin improving various portions of the parking lot and entry areas, and may further wish to convert the cottage to a visitor center or gift shop in coming years to help the foundation reach its goal to become self-sustaining.

The meeting between the foundation and the council was the first with new executive director Lon Saavedra in attendance. Lennox said the foundation would like to work with the city in determining who rents the cottage and for how long because of the foundation's long-range plans for the cottage.

Apparently taken aback by Lennox's comments, the City Council agreed to further look into what legal issues may exist, but lashed out at the board for bringing up the matter so late in the game.

City Manager Larry Perlin said the process, which was begun by an entirely different Hakone board three years ago, was like a genie that's out of the bottle, and it can't be stuffed back inside.

"The train is rolling, and we can't stop it dead in its tracks," Perlin said. "The effort to secure a landlord/tenant relationship is moving along. The Housing Authority is well aware of the significance of the property. The city cannot stop the process."

He continued, "If two years ago I would have known this was going to happen, I would have never suggested it."

Councilmember Evan Baker said he was "astonished" that the foundation board, once all was said and done, would come back to the council and present other ideas for the cottage.

Perlin, however, said he would ask the city attorney to sort out any confusion over the board's claim to the house, and he will also take up the board's issues with the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, which has contracted with the city to manage the rental aspects of the cottage. The city will also look into what strings are attached to the CDBG funds it received to upgrade the house to turn it into an affordable-housing unit.

The council and the foundation also agreed to remain in contact over issues surrounding the cottage.

The foundation was formed to relieve the city of the expense of maintaining Hakone Gardens in the wake of dramatic budget cutbacks in the city.

Two years ago, the city and Hakone applied for a federal Community Development Block Grant for the house, under the premise that it would be used for affordable housing for a low-income renter.

The expression of concern about renting of the cottage is one more stumbling block to the city's effort to transform the former caretaker's cottage into an affordable-housing unit.

The city spent about two years securing the federal funding and has made nearly $100,000 in renovations to the two-bedroom house.

What was lauded as a victory in Saratoga for low-income renters was quickly dismissed by a local housing advocacy group. The group, commenting on reports printed in local newspapers, declared that Hakone and the city's indication of preference for an elderly couple as tenants was discriminatory.

The city backed off the statement and quickly began searching for an independent agency to serve as the cottage's manager and find suitable tenants for the house. About a month ago, the council chose the Housing Authority to handle the task.

The comments at the council meeting followed a letter sent to the city on May 5 detailing the board's concerns, and informing the city of "serious reservations about the appropriateness" of using the house as affordable housing.

The letter was signed by board president-elect Dan Pulcrano, president and executive editor of Metro Newspapers, the parent company of the Saratoga News. Pulcrano says he signed the letter on behalf of the board majority, which opposes the city's rush to move in a tenant in light of the foundation's long-range plans.
Steve Enders

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