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[whitespace] Property owners want their fence to make land safe for their twins

New house is approved

Saratoga--For more than four years, Paul and Sophia Huang have lived on Pike Road, on the corner of Pierce, on a property that is hilly with sharp drops that hang right over the street.

The Huangs put up a wrought iron fence around their entire property--which is close to three acres--after one of their two pet sheep, Juliet, was attacked and killed by neighborhood dogs in April 1998. The sheep, pregnant at the time, had fallen from one of the steep drops on the property onto Pike Road, where dogs encountered it. Neighbors witnessed the incident and called the Sheriffs Office, who arrived and shot Juliet, putting her out of her misery.

After that, the Huangs took their other pet sheep, Romeo, back to a farm in Santa Cruz, where they had purchased him. Because they fear for their own safety and the safety of their 2-year-old twin sons, Austin and Justin, the Huangs think having a fence around their property is necessary.

On Oct. 25, the Saratoga planning commission approved the Huangs' new home by a vote of four to two. The commission ruled that the Huangs were to come back to the commission with a plan to enclose only up to 50 percent of the total property with a fence, prior to the city's issuance of permits for the whole project.

Saratoga's zoning ordinance allows enclosing only up to 4,000 square feet of land in hillsides with fencing, unless the planning commission can grant an exception based on one of three findings: if the visibility of the fence from public streets and adjacent properties will be substantially reduced by landscaping or topography; if a fence is required for safety reasons, or if the exception is for a "designated neighborhood area."

The Huang's fence is not higher than three feet, as it is required to be in Saratoga. But in March 1999, city staff received a complaint from a neighbor and found that the fence was not compliant with the city's zoning ordinance, since the fence enclosed more than 4,000 feet in hillsides. The Huangs submitted a request for an exemption to the ordinance. The planning commission heard the request for the first time in July 1999, at which time commissioners denied the request, although city staff had recommended the fence be allowed to enclose the entire three-acre property, since staff found the first and second findings for an exception.

However, the Huangs included the request for a fencing exception with their request for design review approval for their new home, and were allowed to keep the fence up in the meantime, until the fence and house were considered together by the commission on Oct. 25. Since the Huang's put up the fence, they have planted shrubs and other landscaping to shield it. And the dogs are still a problem, Sophia Huang says, and if it weren't for her fence, they would be an even bigger problem. But she is mostly afraid of one of her sons falling off one of the steep cliffs that make up the boundaries of her property.

This time, on Oct. 25, city staff had recommended enclosing no more than 50 percent of the site--64,904 square feet. But some commissioners, such as Lisa Kurasch, mentioned smaller amounts. Kurasch said she could support 20 to 30 percent of the total lot. Of the fence exceptions approved in the past six years, the average area permitted to be enclosed has been around 33 percent of the lot size, according to Community Development Director James Walgren, but there have been some fencing allowed that have enclosed up to 100 percent. The Huangs feel their case is severe enough to fall under the 100 percent group, but are still content with 50 percent.

When the commission discussed possibly changing the fencing ordinance to be less restrictive, they discussed a 20 percent maximum.

The final decision on Oct. 25, was for the Huangs to return, for the commission to either accept or deny a plan for enclosing between 20 percent and 50 percent of the property, plus a plan for the location and type of the fence, before the city issues permits.

Three commissioners stated outright that the safety issues concerning the property definitely warrant some exception, even if the whole property is not to be fenced.

"I absolutely support the safety issue," said Commissioner Cynthia Barry on Oct. 25, but she added that she could not support the whole property being enclosed.

Some commissioners also said that the commission should take into account the huge show of support from the Huang's neighbors when making its decision, especially since Pike Road is private. Ten neighbors in all spoke publicly on Oct. 25, in support of the project, and not one of them voiced opposition to the project, including the fence.

In contrast, most neighbors said the new home would be a welcome improvement and said they understand the Huangs' desire for fencing and said they did not mind the fence. There are some ten letters in support of the project, as well, though the same people who spoke wrote some of them.

On Oct. 25, the commission approved the demolition of the Huangs' 2,040 square foot home, to be replaced with a two-story home almost three times the size--5,974 square feet, including the garage. Homes up to 6,080 square feet are allowed in this zoning area, according to city code.

The lot is long and narrow, as is the design of the house, since for geologic reasons, the house must be situated on the lot in a certain orientation.

Commissioner Margaret Patrick, one of the two commissioners who voted to deny approval for the new home since she did not like its design, also did not favor granting a fencing exception.

"I don't believe that protection of one's children requires fencing an entire three-acre property, no matter how long and narrow it is, or whatever the situation is," she said on Oct. 25. She also said she did not think a wrought iron fence has a place in the hillsides.
Kara Chalmers

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