San Mateo homeowners seek historic district to stymie SB 9

A group of San Mateo homeowners has asked a state commission to designate Baywood as a historic district to exempt it from a state law that encourages granny flats.

The San Mateo Heritage Alliance has filed an application to the State Historical Resources Commission to create a historic district for the upscale neighborhood of early 20th-century homes, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

A historic district would exempt Baywood from SB 9, which overrides local restrictions and allows homeowners to build up to four residential units on a single-family lot.

If the state commission accepts Baywood as a historic district, the alliance has suggested it may create similar districts in central San Mateo — including the Central, North Central, Aragon, Hayward Park and San Mateo Park neighborhoods.

San Mateo Planning Commissioner Seema Patel said such historic designations could kill plans to add housing density in walkable, transit-friendly parts of town.

Mayor Amourence Lee said she’s concerned a group of local citizens could get a neighborhood designated as historic without input from any elected leaders. 

“Allowing a group of unelected individuals, that don’t necessarily live in the neighborhood, to impose a blanket historic designation that comes with additional red tape and costs is deeply concerning,” Lee told the Chronicle.

UC Davis law Professor Chris Elmendorf said the San Mateo group is hardly the first to try to skirt SB 9 by seeking historic designation.

Last year, state Attorney General Rob Bonta warned Pasadena for attempting to “undermine SB 9 … under the guise of protecting landmark districts.”

“Since SB 9 passed, there have been numerous local governments that have tried to create historic districts to limit SB 9’s application,” Elmendorf, an expert on state housing law, said. “The loophole is pretty gaping.”

“SB 9’s historic exemption is really broad and local bodies have treated it as an invitation to exempt whatever they want to exempt,” he said, noting the standards are looser for historic districts than for historic homes. “You can do a neighborhood just by drawing lines on a map.” 

The genesis of the homeowners’ effort to get Baywood designated as historic stemmed from a plan to bulldoze a 1933 Spanish Revival home at 415 Fairfax Avenue and replace it with a larger, environmentally sustainable house with an accessory dwelling unit.

A city historic review consultant said the 90-year-old house didn’t qualify as historic, according to the city. The project has been updated to a Spanish Revival style

At a public hearing, neighbors blasted the plan and talked of designating the neighborhood lined with other revival styles — including Mediterranean, Monterey, Colonial, Tudor and French — as historic.

San Mateo Heritage Alliance President Laurie Hietter said the proposed project “might not violate design guidelines,” but she found it shocking.

“If I were driving down the street and I saw that house, I would slam on the brakes and say ‘How in the world did that happen?’” she told the Chronicle.

— Dana Bartholomew

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