Anne & Lars Build a House
Chapter 6: Application
[Sorry for the text-heavy installment. I'll try to make it gripping.]
In our last installment, I said I'd give you details of the apartment. Here's the most important detail: it's gone!
Let's back up a bit: the notion of an income-producing second unit was a key factor in our decision to pursue this project. We devised an apartment below the main house that was to be built mainly from intermodal shipping containers, plus a little bit of conventionally framed connecting structure.
America imports much more than it exports, and it's often cheaper for shippers to buy new containers overseas than to send empty ones back for another load. So these big steel boxes are accumulating in shipping terminals all over the country. They're a cheap, fast way to assemble a weatherproof, durable structure of great strength. You cut out openings where you need them, and finish them as you like.
Shipping container architecture
Anne realized that we could build the apartment this way. It would fit with our vision of a house that was a little unconventional. We could build it quickly, giving us a place to live while the main house was being built. We'd save a bundle in rent, and live at the construction site. (A nightmare scenario to some, but great fun if you ask me.)
Number-crunching convinced us that after we moved into the main house, we could collect enough rent to cover the interest on the extra money we'd borrow to build the apartment, plus a little left over to help with the mortgage -- it would have positive cash flow from the start. And if things got really bad, we could rent out the main house and live in the apartment.
So we developed a plan to put the apartment under the main house. It would comprise four 8'x20' containers, with a few add-ons. The town requires two parking spaces per dwelling unit, so our architect figured out how to run a steep but legal four-car driveway down the hill and under the house. (You can see all this on the site plan, in which the shaded area is the apartment footprint, and three cars are shown -- one car straddling two tandem parking spots.)
We had been told to expect around a year between purchase and permit. Six months after we bought the property, we had plans that fit well within all regulations, supportive neighbors, and an architect who had previously sat on the Planning Commission. We felt we had an excellent shot at a fast permit, by way of our thorough preparation and our wintertime application. This was crucial so that we could break ground in the spring of 2011, once the hillsides dried out from winter rains.
On December 2, 2010, we applied to the City of Sausalito for our design review permit.
That's when things started to go wrong.
To build a house, you need a building permit, which allows you to actually start construction. But in these parts, before you get a building permit, you need a design review permit. This is mostly about the impact that the house will have on others -- massing, exterior materials, site drainage, privacy, views, etc. You have to let everyone know what you want to build, so they can decide whether they like it. You don't need complete construction details, but you need enough that everyone can visualize the result. Part of this is constructing story poles -- a full-size, on-site mockup of the building envelope, made out of 2x4 lumber and colored tape.
The Planning Commission is the town agency that grants design review permits. There are five commissioners. They are volunteers, appointed by the City Council, and they serve three-year terms, meeting twice per month. To vote yes on a project, a commissioner has to be able to make a dozen "findings" that are specified in the town regulations.
Design Review findings
If three commissioners vote yes, you get your design review permit. Otherwise, you don't.
The Planning Commission takes neighbor input very seriously. Neighbors don't get to dictate your design, but neighbor opposition is a big red flag for commissioners. They aren't likely to cut you any slack if they think you're not giving neighbors their due.
So we talked to all neighbors about their concerns before we started designing. We designed around those, and when we had plans and a model and a materials list, we showed those to neighbors as well, before we applied for the permit. We heard nothing but positive comments about the design.
Thinking we were in good shape, we forked over the application fees and several copies of the plans. (Fees for this project were more than my college tuition. To be fair, I did go to a state school.)
The town has up to 30 days to review plans and respond to your application. And they used it. They'd take a month, then ask us for another piece of documentation. We'd provide that within a few days (spending money on architect and/or other professional fees in the process). Then they'd take another month, and ask us for another piece of documentation. I guess they wanted us to feel like we were getting a lot for all those fees.
Sometime during all this, we attended a Historical Landmarks Board hearing in which they confirmed that the existing house is not historically significant, meaning that we did not have to preserve any aspect of it. This was more or less a foregone conclusion, but we felt it was a good omen. In actuality, it was to be a very rare break in our favor.
Finally, five months after submitting our application, the town notified us that we were on the public hearing schedule for May 11, 2011. After you get onto the schedule, you have about a week to erect story poles so that everyone can see the actual volume your bulding will occupy.
Once the story poles went up, things changed dramatically.
Neighbors who said they were fine with shipping containers near the public steps now complained that containers would negatively change the character of those steps. Neighbors complained about the design of our driveway (which had been OK'ed by the Fire and Engineering Departments). New concerns were raised about exterior materials. Many of these complaints were sent in writing to the planning staff before we were told about them.
Most crucially, neighbors whose bay view we would partly obstruct told us that this obstruction was too much for them. This surprised us, because we thought we had established acceptable height parameters with them before we started designing.
In the face of all this, the town planner assigned to our project notified us that there were several findings she would be unable to make in her Staff Report on the project, specifically #2, #4, #7, #9, and #10. This news was extremely dismaying, since the town had had five months to figure this out and talk to us about it, instead of dumping it on us a week before the hearing -- not to mention that we felt all findings except #4 (the neighbors's bay view) were trivially easy to make. Commissioners don't have to accept the staff report's findings, but each finding that is not made in the Staff Report is basically a red flag, and an invitation to find a reason to say no.
We scrambled to deal with these last-minute problems. We figured out a way to reduce the building height by two feet. We adjusted the story poles, and the neighbors reacted well to this. Then we discovered that the builder who erected the poles had set two key poles too low by mistake. When they were corrected, the neighbors objected again.
We wrote up an agreement about obscured windows with another neighbor who wanted more privacy between our houses. We changed a translucent wall to an opaque one, to satisfy another neighbor who didn't want to see lights at night -- an easy design change that we'd rather have made before they wrote a letter to the town.
Out of left field came another concern: in erecting the story poles, one of the builder's crew trimmed a branch that was where a story pole needed to go. This exposed a view of San Francisco. Some people said that this constituted a "public view" that would be obscured by the new house, in violation of finding #4. Someone went so far as to post an anonymous note at the view location, urging members of the public to express their objection. Given that this view didn't exist a few days before, and would not have existed at all but for the need to put up story poles, we felt this position had no merit. But what would ommissioners make of it, and of all the other issues?
The public hearing is where the rubber meets the road. Your assigned town planner starts by presenting the Staff Report for your project. This evaluates how well the project meets the findings. Then you get to talk for up to 15 minutes about how great your project is.
After that, members of the public -- including neighbors -- speak in support or opposition, for up to 3 minutes each. When everyone has said his piece, commissioners discuss the project, and when that's done, they vote on it. They can approve, deny, or continue the project to a subsequent hearing.
Our hearing was postponed by two weeks in order to deal with the story pole error. We went before the commission on May 25, 2011. Only three commissioners attended the meeting.
This happens a lot. You have to get three votes to get approved, regardless of how many commissioners show up. One particular commissioner often leaves early because his babysitter can't stay late. (Seriously!)
Since there was so much opposition and we were unlikely to get all three present to vote yes, the commissioners offered us a continuance after the staff report was presented. But a delay without a discussion would have been pointless. We simply could not continue the design process without knowing how commissioners came down on issues that could dramatically impact the building envelope.
So we elected to be heard. It did not go well.
Our presentation was not strong, but it would not have mattered -- the commissioners clearly put the neighbor's bay view at the top of their priority list. We would have lost on that alone, but neighbors brought up still more issues that we had not heard before. We had no chance.
When it came time for the commissioners' discussion, one of them said something nice, but quickly recanted when the other two threw the book at us. We were accused of trying to get a view by taking it from others, and of trying to drop a random catalog of industrial architectural elements into a traditional neighborhood, among other things.
They were particularly hard on our driveway proposal. Putting cars under the house allowed us our four required parking spots, but also pushed the house up into the neighbor's bay view. It was obvious that the apartment was in trouble.
We expected a rough time, but we didn't expect what came next. Instead of going into each issue and telling us what would and would not be acceptable, commissioners simply said there were a lot of issues, threw their hands in the air (literally), and about as fast as it takes me to type this, one of them moved to deny the project, and they unanimously voted to do just that.
We were stunned. If it's clear that you're not going to get approval, the commission usually offers a continuance after their discussion, not before. A continuance avoids the very considerable expense and delay of a new application -- your fees are supposed to include two public hearings. Now that we had at least some idea of what direction to take, we could have modified the design and come back for a second try.
But no. In fact, no, no, and no. Application denied.
A month earlier, we had imagined we might sail through -- we had done our homework and outreach, thought outside the box, cracked the code, and somehow created a design that might let us afford to build a house in Sausalito.
Now we were dead in the water.
We thought about selling the property and walking away from our year-long investment. But with this denial on the record, any smart buyer would demand a much lower price in exchange for the increased development risk. And the commission had not said anything definitive about the public view issue, which would have reduced the lot's buildable envelope by about a third.
So we couldn't build, and we couldn't sell, and it wasn't clear if we'd ever be able to do either. We had been hemorrhaging money for a year on design, fees, and a land loan that required frequent large principal payments, which lobbed quarterly grenades into our financials. And we had nothing to show for it but sharply reduced property value.
It was not a good time.
I wasn't even able to blog about it. I would not have been able to write anything remotely printable.
We decided to do whatever it took to get a design approved, so that we could at least have a realistic option to sell, even if we could no longer afford to build. Anne consulted local architect Don Olsen, who was at the hearing. He said he thought the main issues were the driveway, visible containers, and neighbor views. We agreed. We removed the apartment and driveway, and lowered the house another three feet.
These and too many other bad breaks to list here had conspired to make the project seem jinxed. Although there were enjoyable moments of actual house design over these months, we had no reason to think we were any closer to a permit than we had been a year ago. We wished we had never started down this path.
To add insult to injury, a comparable fixer-upper that had competed for our attentions a year earlier was by this time completed and for sale -- right across the gulch from us, in plain sight!
Feeling low, we reapplied on September 11, 2011, paying another full set of application fees, and constructing a new set of story poles. We requested a different planner, since this was a new application and we felt as though we did not have the desired working relationship with the current one. This request was not granted.
We waited for our next hearing date, becoming more pessimistic by the week.
Then Anne got her nails done.
At the nail salon, Anne relayed our tale of woe to her manicurist. A customer nearby asked about it. She turned out to be one of the planning commissioners! She said that since our project had been denied, and was thus no longer in front of the commission, she could talk to us about it. (Why commissioners are not allowed to talk to applicants about active applications is beyond me.)
She and Anne had a lengthy, in-depth conversation, in which Anne related the story from our side with some candor. The end result was that Anne felt this commissioner, who was not present at our first hearing, would be sympathetic to us in our second round. She also recommended that engage local architect Michael Rex to represent us at the hearing, since he has a good track record of getting approvals, and seems to have a feel for what each commissioner responds to.
For various reasons, Michael declined to represent us at the hearing. But he gave us excellent advice about our own presentation, and about interacting with commissioners before the hearing.
Finally, our little project seemed to be catching a break or two. But the city was not done with us yet. We were notified that our next hearing was to be Oct 26, 2011. This time, I would present, and I was not looking forward to it. On the evening, we found that once again, two commissioners would be absent -- the only ones who had ever said anything positive about the project, including Anne's fellow manicuree.
Highly skeptical of our prospects in front of the remaining three, we asked for a continuance. This was granted without resistance. The next available slot was Nov 30. A five-week delay on the tenuous hope that a friendlier panel would show up was tough to swallow. But it gave us more time to prepare and hone our arguments, to try to work out remaining issues with two neighbors who were still in opposition (this was not successful), and to fully embrace the dread of giving a fifteen-minute presentation in front of a semi-hostile audience, with no real power on our side, and with our financial futures riding on the outcome.
We submitted a short addendum to our application, outlining our responses to objections point by point. This was to pave the way for our presentation in the hearing. Just before the 30th, I managed to meet with two commissioners at the site, showing them what we were trying to achieve, and giving them a sense of what the various objections were doing to our building envelope.
We were as prepared as we would get.