Hostage!

I’m staring down the barrel of a gun on another project not more than 200 ft from the other one that was subjected to neighborhood thugs (See “The San Francisco Lottery” blog).

In this case I have a grumpy neighbor who is threatening my project with a DR request for work that is not even on the permit application. Even better….the work is already on a separate approved permit. I have tried to explain this to our beloved local NIMBY’er, who has been in the neighborhood for more than 30 years (or whatever), but she is resolute that it’s her right to DR our project and she intends to do so.

For those of you not in San Francisco, the DR acronym stands for Discretionary Review. It is most often used in the verb form, as in “If you don’t comply with your neighbor’s demands, they will DR your project.” Like most jurisdictions, the planning process in San Francisco involves notifying the local community of your proposal for development. This can be as minor as adding a window to your house or major like building a sports stadium (good luck with your DR on that one). The process has no regulation, you don’t even need to submit your name or contact info on a DR form, just fill it out anonymously and pay the fee. When there’s no accountability, there’s opportunity for misuse and abuse.

In our case we followed the project procedures required by SF Planning exactly. We held a pre-application meeting and invited the adjoining neighbors to discuss the project. This particular neighbor had a laundry list of grievances that included lights from adjacent properties, shadows, noise, diminished property value, and an premonition of increase in activity in the rear yard after the project was complete. My responses were as tactful as I could make them, quietly telling her that noise is a civil issue, lights on other properties are not under our control, good luck proving a decrease in property value right now in San Francisco (as long as your house is still standing, it’s increasing in value), and “yes” the family would like to enjoy their outdoor space a little more. I had to avoid the shadow issue after I realized she couldn’t comprehend that shadows never fall to the South. The one valid concern she express was over privacy between her existing bedroom window and our proposed bedroom window. She was there first so I guess she gets to claim the sight lines.

In San Francisco, adding windows can be a burdensome process, especially is they are visible from the public right of way. In this case the windows in question only face the mid-block open space and were not subject to anything more lengthy than an over-the-counter permit….which we pulled a few weeks after it became clear that the sticky issue would be privacy. I did this intentionally as a preventative tactic to put the offending elements on a separate permit and show them as existing conditions on our main permit.  The theory being to keep dissent to the quick and easy permit, and let our long process for variance and neighborhood notification run cleanly. Well, in San Francisco, if you’re pissed at someone, and that’s usually anyone attempting to get a building permit, you have many options thanks to the San Francisco City Planning policies and procedures.

So how does this really affect us? We applied for building permit on September 15, 2014. Our variance hearing, related to work in the rear yard on the existing structure, is scheduled for February 24th. We’ve waited 5 months to find out if we have a project or not. If we receive a DR request, we are pulled off the agenda for the variance hearing that day, and scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing sometime in April. On any project time equals money, shorter projects being cheaper. The added hours to prepare documentation, meet with commissioners, and formulate a presentation is also not free. I estimate that for a minor project like this the added cost will be in the $5-6k range, and our schedule lengthens by about 3 months. If I had a contractor ready to dig in June, I now tell him September….and then he tells me he’s no longer available. Contractors can be fickle when there are so many shovel ready projects in the city right now.

And what about my clients? They need to find an alternate place to live for a year during construction. With kids in the local school and the accelerated cost of housing right now, a suitable place is hard to come by. Median rents for a 2 bedroom family home is around $6000. Now triple that number for the 3 month extension your neighbor just created.

Our meeting with the neighbors was in early July. I spent the next 8 weeks emailing and calling to set up a meeting at the neighbors house to see the issue from their vantage point. I never got a reply or invitation. Instead they decided to cut off all foliage from the top of the fence up and then send me a picture to emphasize the lose of privacy from our proposed windows. My planner described this as “creating a problem where none existed”. I asked if there was a means to “weed out” the frivolous or irrelevant DR requests, and was told it’s their right to DR the project, even if it’s without merit. When do home owner rights come into play?

In an effort to thwart the impending DR I met with our NIMBY neighbor last week and produces a few options that will not even meet the minimum standards for environmental quality under the San Francisco Building Code. We have to provide a minimum 8% of the floor area as windows for natural light, the same figures apply to fresh air. Under her proposal we would reduce the width of all the widows facing her property to equal a total of less than 5% of the floor area. Believe it or not, this was a compromise to no windows and getting light only through skylights. Sounds lovely.

Rather than submit to the strong-arm tactics (no windows or prolonged DR process), we simply moved the windows to a separate over-the-counter permit and closed the discussion on the issue. At this point our neighbor can go red in the face protesting windows that are no longer part of the project under review. Knowing how the system works is empowering. Knowing how to defeat the system is better.

Ben Farrell