A use permit for a large day care home on Heritage Court was unanimously denied for a second time by the Los Altos City Council, as Mayor Ron Packard went head-to-head with the day care’s attorney in a tussle over legal interpretations.
Irina Home Day Care has until Sept. 30 to either cease operations at 1250 Heritage Court, located in the neighborhood bordered by Grant Road, and Fremont, Oakhurst and Portland avenues, or scale back to a small home day care facility of six children. The facilitym owned by Irina Mamochina, carries a state permit for 12 children.
Several Heritage Court neighbors testified that the volume of traffic on the small, curvy street, as well as rushing, distracted parents—sometimes talking on cellphones as they drive—was creating an unsafe situation.
Mamochina’s attorney, John Hickey, dismissed the neighbors' complaints as “vague” and said that there have been no accidents or recorded traffic violations.
But Hickey’s main argument was that state law supersedes city law, so the city cannot deny a day care that already has a state license.
“We don’t actually need to be here, for several reasons. The permit has already been granted,” Hickey said. “I’m sure that Mayor Packard can tell you, and Councilmember (Megan) Satterlee, who also went to law school, can tell you, state law preempts city law when there’s a conflict, and there’s a clear conflict here.”
At one point, he chided the council, accusing the city for a “history of not allowing large family day cares,” saying, “Honestly, it’s kind of sad; it’s egregious.”
Packard rejected Hickey’s arguments and interpretation of state law.
“You need to remember that when we got elected, we had to sign and swear that we will support the Constitution, and that means state law preempts," he said. "And the state Legislature, in its great wisdom, has said that regardless of zoning laws, certain rules are going to apply, but they didn’t give carte blanche. They said cities get to do X, Y and Z, and one of the factors we get to consider is traffic.”
Packard then walked the audience through a detailed, 20-minute explanation of the city’s zoning codes, concluding with 13 findings for why the council should uphold its original denial of a permit on June 14. Traffic and safety were key in his findings.
Packard and other council members also took offense to a suggestion by Hickey that Mamochina, a Russian immigrant with limited English, was being discriminated against.
“This is the first time that I can remember I’ve been accused of being ethnically biased or being prejudiced in any way against any person or party to come before me," Satterlee said. "I would like to state on the record that the ethnicity and or immigration status of the applicant played absolutely no role in my decision in the prior council meeting or in this council meeting. In fact, had you asked me either of those things prior to the statement by Mr. Hickey, I would not have been able to tell you what they are.”
In other action on Tuesday night:
- Approval of a senior center pilot scholarship program starting this year. The program would award scholarships of up to $200 per household, per year, for qualified applicants. The money would cover senior center membership, lunches and classes.
- Asked for the Senior Commission to give the council a prioritized list of possible projects to serve senior citizens better. The commission presented the results of —which had a whopping 23 percent return rate from seniors in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills—showing that transportation, being able to remain at home, an improved senior center, keeping active both physically and mentally, and disaster preparedness were the top five concerns among respondents 55 and older. Council members said money is an issue, but they were willing to take on some future projects.
- Approved sending out a request for proposals for design of a possible traffic roundabout at the intersection of Fremont Avenue and Fallen Leaf Lane. The roundabout was suggested as part of the city's approved by council earlier this year. Planning Commissioner Jeannie Bruins, who lives near the intersection, asked council to delay the project until neighbors could be better educated. Council members said having the design at a future neighborhood meeting would be more productive.
- Shifted the Public Sculpture Committee away from reporting to the Parks, Arts, and Recreation Commission to the council instead. According to a staff report, discord between members of the commission and the sculpture committee led to the Personnel Committee reevaluating the reporting structure. The goals of the two are different enough to warrant the change, the report said. A resident raised the idea of resurrecting the now defunct Arts Commission, which council members were open to discussing in the future.