Fight over Silicon Valley dream house leads to an unusual legal challenge

Jyothy Reddy and her family spent $2.5 million on a big empty
lot in Monte Sereno to build her dream house.

The former tech executive and current real estate developer
attacked the project with logic and thoroughness — directing her
architect to study home designs in the neighborhood, and to check
off each box of the city’s strict planning and zoning rules. She
submitted plans to the city, but was met with vocal opposition from
a handful of neighbors.

The project failed in two contentious votes, despite revisions
and an endorsement from city staff. “It was a very high-techie
presentation,” Reddy said of the initial pitch. “We failed
miserably.”

Now, in an unusual strategy, Reddy�and a nonprofit housing
advocacy group are each suing Monte Sereno for possible violations
of the state’s recently strengthened Housing Accountability Act,
which is designed to encourage development. The suit by the
nonprofit YIMBY Law is part of a larger, more aggressive strategy
by housing advocates to begin holding cities accountable for even
small development decisions amid a statewide housing shortage.

“It’s important to let city attorneys know we’re
watching,†said Sonja Trauss, executive director of YIMBY Law in
San Francisco, which is asking a judge to overturn the city
council’s decision.

The council rejected the plan in June after an emotional public
hearing. Three councilmembers said the project design was
incompatible with the neighborhood and city standards and
endangered three trees on the property.

YIMBY Law has recently delivered warnings to Sausalito and
Culver City in Southern California over other single-family home
projects. So far, cities have been willing to negotiate approvals
of projects rather than spend $10,000 or more fighting the suits,
Trauss said.

The group aims to pressure cities to comply with the Housing
Accountability Act, which was updated in 2017 to make it easier to
build homes in existing neighborhoods. State law now prohibits
cities from rejecting projects that meet local zoning and general
plan standards unless a city can prove they are a health and safety
hazard.

In Los Altos, another pro-housing group, California Renters
Legal Advocacy & Education Fund, successfully sued to force the
city to allow an 15-unit apartment and office development on Main
Street.

Even for a council decision on a single family homes, Trauss
said, a suit “adds a huge amount of risk†for cities to decline
projects.

Trauss said the small projects may not add substantial housing
to a city, but across the state they can add up to thousands of new
homes. Roughly 70 percent of the state is zoned for single family
homes. California has the highest housing costs in the country, and
by some estimates is millions of homes and apartments short of
meeting the needs of its population.

In the latest state housing development cycle, Monte Sereno
nearly doubled its goal for new luxury housing, and met its target
for apartments for very low income residents. But it built less
than 10 percent of its state-mandated goals to produce housing
affordable for the middle class.

Jyothy Reddy bought the 1-acre lot in Monte Sereno in the 16000
block of Greenwood Lane in January 2018. The vacant property, clear
but for a few oak and eucalyptus trees, is sloped and sits at the
bend of a residential street. Several homes sit higher atop the
hillside.

The community consists of spacious, luxury homes on large,
wooded lots. The median value of a home value in Monte Sereno is
$3.3 million, according to Zillow.

Reddy quit tech several years ago to develop residential
properties in Silicon Valley. But this project was her family home.
The family expected to move from Almaden Valley and settle into
their new, custom-designed, five-bedroom home with a pool in the
quiet, exclusive neighborhood.

The project galvanized some neighbors. A group brought up their
concerns about the custom home at an initial review by the city’s
site and architecture commission. The advisory board rejected the
proposal in November, criticizing the design, size and potential
impact on a row of a neighbor’s eucalyptus trees.

Reddy went back to the drawing board. She met with neighbors,
solicited support and ideas, and had the architect redraw plans for
the two-story home. The family has spent at least $150,000 on plans
and preparations so far.

City staff endorsed the revised plan. “The proposed new home
design is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood of mixed
architecture and is similar to homes close by,†city planners
wrote.

But several neighbors continued their opposition, filing
hundreds of pages of comments and testimony with the city council,
arguing they didn’t have enough time to review the project, and
that it didn’t fit the character of the neighborhood.

“What they are still trying to do is to put a massive
flat-land home on a small, sloped lot,†one neighbor wrote in a
100-page opposition.

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The council rejected the plan on a 3-2 vote at a June meeting,
after hours of debate. Mayor Liz Lawler, who voted against the
project, cited the lawsuit and declined to comment this week.
Messages left for other city councilmembers and the city manager
 were not returned.

Reddy’s suit claims the council bowed to neighbors’
pressure, ignoring state law that requires them to approve projects
that meet zoning standards. The suit also claims councilmembers
were improperly biased, coached opponents on how to defeat the
project, and prepared a denial motion months before
the hearing.

Reddy said the process has been painful and frustrating. “We
were surprised and shocked,†she said. Had they known the
difficulties, she said, “We would have invested elsewhere.â€

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Fight over Silicon Valley dream house leads to an unusual
legal challenge