Hear Palo Alto Weekly journalists discuss the ins and outs of code enforcement in the city, from violations of promised "public benefits" to construction practices to retail zoning on "Behind the Headlines."
After more than two years of providing counseling to Palo Alto teenagers dealing with mental health issues out of an office at the First Baptist Church, Jill Cooper received a letter from the city last week informing her that she has until Sept. 30 to leave.
Cooper, whose clients include teenagers who have experienced suicidal ideation, said she was surprised to learn in the letter that the services she provides "are not a permitted use within the single-family residential district and are not compatible with the surrounding R-1 neighborhood." She told the Weekly she found this odd, given that she deals with exactly the type of teenagers that residents have been worried about since 2009, when a cluster of suicides sparked a community effort to promote youth well-being.
The notice from the city's Lead Code Enforcement Officer James Stephens gave her until Sept. 30 to "cease medical services." Failure to do so, it stated, may result in an administrative citation and/or a notice to appear at a hearing at City Hall. The fines for the violation, the letter noted, are $500 per day, subject to go up to $750 per day after a second violation and to $1,000 per day after a third.
Cooper described her job as a "labor of love." After paying the church for her lease and paying her taxes, she estimates that she makes about $5 an hour. She is also well-aware that with Palo Alto's sky-high office rates, the chances of her finding an affordable new location are very slim.
"The sad thing about this is that I'm going to have to close my practice because there's no office space in Palo Alto for the cost of what the church leases me space for," Cooper said. "I'm hoping all my patients will be able to find a therapist."
Cooper, who sees about 15 patients per week, isn't the only tenant of First Baptist Church who is facing tough choices. Last week, the city sent out notices to First Baptist and to 11 organizations that rent space within the Old Palo Alto neighborhood church, informing them that they are violating the zoning code, which "enumerates the permitted and conditionally permit uses for single-family residential districts."
"The City of Palo Alto is a great place to live and work because of our dedicated residents and businesses who continue to show pride, care and concern for their property and community," each letter states. "Palo Alto's Code Enforcement Division has received a complaint regarding your use of the subject property."
The city's crackdown on tenants at First Baptist Church began in early 2016, when it targeted one of the church's largest tenants: the New Mozart School of Music. After initially requesting that the music school apply for a conditional-use permit to remain at the church, planning staff determined that its operation in a residential neighborhood would be illegal even with a permit. Last month, the Planning and Transportation Commission affirmed staff's decision to require New Mozart to leave, though officials also later agreed to give the school an extension of four to six months so that it can improve the space at a new location.
The city also requested the church submit a list of all of its tenants, which the church did. Then last week, the tenants began to receive their notices of violation. Those include iSing Girl Choir, Tuesday Night Tango, Bisheh Toddler Class, Chinese Global Artist Association, Resounding Achord (a concert and musical event organization), Palo Alto Philharmonic, Jennifer Merrill, Joellen Werne (both Merrill and Werne are characterized as "medical services"), Moveable Feet (a folk dancing program), Stanford Folk Dance and Tango Argentina.
Most of the tenants were asked to vacate and cease operations within 30 days. Others, including the three medical-services providers and the toddler class, were given until Sept. 30. In some cases, tenants were notified that they may be eligible to apply for a conditional-use permit or a special-use permit to continue using the church space.
"We're not just trying to put anyone out," Stephens said. "There has to be an end to activities that can no longer be there. However, we are willing to work with people."
Stephens said the city has heard from some groups who had requested more time (much like New Mozart).
From the city's perspective, the issue with these organizations is the same one that it encountered with New Mozart. Even though a church is allowed to operate within the single-family residential (R-1) zones with a conditional use permit, the uses within the church are tightly restricted by city code.
On July 18, Stephens sent a letter to the church itself, notifying it of its own violation.
"Here, First Baptist Church does not possess any use permit that might allow continued use of the church for activities other than regular organized religious worship and religious education," the letter states. "The frequency with which the church hosts such activities and the resulting intensity of the church's use is not compatible with the surrounding R-1 neighborhood, which is ... intended to create, preserve and enhance areas suitable for detached dwellings with a strong presence of nature and with open area affording maximum privacy."
The letter asks Pastor Randle Mixon of First Baptist to "cease operations of all uses other than those that provide regular organized religious worship and religious education, or those uses that are permitted or conditionally permitted in R-1 districts at the subject property to the satisfaction of a Palo Alto code enforcement officer, no later than Aug. 17, 2017."
But for Mixon, the city's decision marks a huge break with past practices and a significant shift in the city's interpretation of the zoning code. And for the church, the decision carries huge ramifications. Mixon told the Weekly that it gets about $110,000 annually in rental income from the tenants, an amount that makes up about a third of its operating budget.
The funding, he said, is critical for the church's ability to maintain the property.
"If we can't rent the facility, we can't keep up the property, and we really can't continue to exist in the property," Mixon told the Weekly. "We'd be forced to do something drastic if the city takes such a hard line."
The problem, he said, isn't limited to First Baptist. Because Palo Alto is dominated by R-1 zones, almost every church will have to face a similar dilemma (there are some exceptions, including All Saints Church, which is located in a commercial zone downtown).
"This is precedent setting," Mixon said. "No church in 2017 can maintain these large buildings without renting space in them. And for us, most importantly, it enables good stewardship of the facility.
"To me, it would be irresponsible for us to hold a large space like that and not make it available for community good," Mixon said.
The church, he said, has been around for about 70 years, since long before anything like the current use-permit had existed. And with the city now clamping down on uses, both First Baptist and iSing — a choir group that was launched in the church — have hired attorneys to potentially contest the violation, Mixon said.
"The city has a very narrow definition of what a religious institution is and what it can provide, and they're making a very strict interpretation of a very narrow definition," Mixon said.
Regardless of whether the church's legal challenge proceeds and succeeds, it'll probably be too late for Cooper to remain in her current location. This week, she was notifying parents of her clients about her forthcoming departure from First Baptist. Some, she said, were pretty upset. Some offered help in finding a new location, either in Palo Alto or elsewhere.
One option, she said, is conducting some appointments at her clients' homes and referring out a "significant portion" of the others. Another is renting in Palo Alto where she would be paying twice the rate she is paying now, which would require her to double the rate she charges.
"For some families, this might not be an issue at all," Cooper said. "For others, it might be."