The Summer of NIMBY in Silicon Valley’s Poshest Town

on Aug12
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SAN FRANCISCO — Tech industry titans have navigated a lot to get where they are today — the dot-com bust, the 2008 recession, a backlash against tech power, the pandemic. They have overcome boardroom showdowns, investor power struggles and regulatory land mines.

But this summer, some of them encountered their most threatening opponent yet: multifamily townhouses.

Their battle took place in one of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive and wealthiest towns: Atherton, Calif., a 4.9-square-mile enclave just north of Stanford University with a population of 7,500. There, tech chief executives and venture capitalists banded together over the specter that more than one home could exist on a single acre of land in the general vicinity of their estates.

Their weapon? Strongly worded letters.

Faced with the possibility of new construction, Rachel Whetstone, Netflix’s chief communications officer and an Atherton resident, wrote to the City Council and mayor that she was “very concerned” about traffic, tree removal, light and noise pollution, and school resources.

The companies that made Atherton’s residents rich have donated huge sums to nonprofits to offset their impact on the local economy, including driving housing costs up. Some of the letter writers have even sat on the boards of charities aimed at addressing the region’s poverty and housing problems.

That was when the outcry began. Some objectors offered creative ways to comply with the state’s requirements without building new housing. One technology executive suggested in his letter that Atherton try counting all the pool houses.

Mr. Senkut said he was upset because he felt that Atherton’s townhouses proposal had been done in a sneaky way without input from the community. He said the potential for increased traffic had made him concerned about the safety of his children.

“If you’re going to have to do something, ask the neighborhood what they want,” he said.

Mr. Draper, Mr. Johnson and representatives for Mr. Andreessen, Mr. Arora and Mr. Wilson of Electronic Arts declined to comment. The other letter writers did not respond to requests for comment.

The volume of responses led Atherton’s City Council to remove the townhouse portion from its plan in July. On Aug. 2, it instead proposed a program to encourage residents to rent out accessory dwelling units on their properties, to allow people to subdivide properties and to potentially build housing for teachers on school property.

“Atherton is indeed different,” the proposal declared. Despite the town’s “perceived affluent nature,” the plan said, it is a “cash-poor” town with few people who are considered at risk for housing.

Rick DeGolia, Atherton’s mayor, said the issue with the townhouses was that they would not have fit the state’s definition of affordable housing, since land in Atherton costs $8 million an acre. One developer told him that the units could go for at least $4 million each.

“Everybody who buys into Atherton spent a huge amount of money to get in,” he said. “They’re very concerned about their privacy — that’s for sure. But there’s a different focus to get affordable housing, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Atherton’s new plan needs approval by California’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Cities that don’t comply with the state’s requirements for new housing to meet community growth face fines, or California could usurp local land-use authority.

Ralph Robinson, an assistant planner at Good City, the consulting firm that Atherton hired to create the housing proposal, said the state had rejected the vast majority of initial proposals in recent times.

“We’re very aware of that,” he said. “We’re aware we’ll get this feedback, and we may have to revisit some things in the fall.”

Mr. Robinson has seen similar situations play out across Northern California. The key difference with Atherton, though, is its wealth, which attracts attention and interest, not all of it positive.

“People are less sympathetic,” he said.

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