Are the Creeks of San Carlos Truly “Creeks”?

September 13, 2018

It's All in the Definition.

The City of San Carlos has several waterways that run toward the bay that are designated as “creeks”.  The two most notable are Cordilleras Creek, which runs behind Eaton Avenue along the border of Redwood City, and Pulgas Creek, which runs between San Carlos Avenue and the homes on Carmelita Drive.  There's even a third “creek” that runs behind the homes along Howard and Greenwood Avenues, which I'm not sure is even named.

For anyone who has property that borders these creeks, they know that the natural boundary offers a mixed blessing.  On the positive side, a creek creates a natural barrier between connecting properties that increases space and privacy.  And many of the lots that border the creeks are larger than the average lot size in San Carlos.  Along Howard Avenue, several of the creekside lots approach 10,000 square feet, and the creekside homes along  the 1900 Block of Carmelita features lots that are twice that size.

But living along a creek also carries additional responsibilities and limitations. The border of the creek typically falls inside of the property boundary, so each respective homeowner is responsible for the maintenance of their creek boundary. In a few areas where the creek bed lies far below the plane of the property, retaining walls have to be constructed and maintained by the homeowner, and this can be stunningly expensive.

Another lesser known but significant limitation for lots that border the designated creeks is their utility — or lack thereof.  Creek-side homeowners cannot utilize as much of their property for construction as they could if their lot resided anywhere else in the City.  The primary reason is that the standard 15-foot setback that's required from the rear of the property to the nearest structure increases to at least 25 feet for homes that are built next to one of these creeks.  For a typical 50'x120′ lot in San Carlos, that's a loss of nearly 8% of the lot for building purposes which may prove significant if one is attempting to remodel their home.

Finally, if homeowners need to make any changes to the border of the creek, there are several governing bodies that must agree, including the Department of Fish and Game in most instances.  When is the last time you saw a fish in one of these “creeks”???

Are They Really Creeks?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a creek as:

A narrow, sheltered waterway, especially an inlet in a shoreline or channel in a marsh.

This definition implies that there is actually a water in the waterway, or at the very least a constant source of water. But from having lived next to one of these creeks in San Carlos for the past 28 years, I can tell you firsthand that these waterways are usually bone dry for at least 75% of the year, and even more so during drought years. The only appreciable flow you'll see in these creeks happens immediately after rainfall. Why?

Because these channels are simply storm drains, not “creeks”.

While I certainly agree that the land bordering the creek should be maintained by the homeowner, I see no reason why these properties should be treated any differently than any other parcel in the City.  The setbacks should be the same from the rear of the property, and the certainly the Department of Fish and Game has better things to do than preside over what is nothing more than a glorified ditch. And note that a number of older structures that reside right along the creek have been grandfathered in for decades.

I've heard from a number of homeowners who have been hamstrung by the onerous and outdated regulations that are designed to protect what isn't even really a creek in the first place.  So while the City is busy revising their building code limiting the size of homes in San Carlos, this should be an easy fix that should be conceded back to homeowners.

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  1. Josh Zaroor on September 14, 2018 at 1:05 am

    I live on Pulgas Creek (School Street) and it was definitely a challenge and a very expensive one to obtain a creek exception. The lots on School Street do not have the luxury of being 10k+ and for most of us, the 25 foot setback would mean the house couldn’t even be built today.

    Another thing to note is that most properties on these “creeks” are forced to pay for flood insurance, which depending on the position of the property could be very expensive.

    I will say the City was open and transparent during our creek exception permitting process – and I have found them to be reasonable to work with and professional.

    On the upside, we regularly get visits from wildlife- deer, raccoons, skunks, and even a family of ducks this past winter. Creek-side living at its best!

  2. KCaldwell on September 20, 2018 at 3:03 am

    I don’t doubt that dealing with the regulation (and insurance) that comes with a creekside lot is expensive and frustrating. I don’t know all the issues so I can’t comment on that .. but was puzzled when you called them storm drains! I had to wonder.., isn’t it common for creeks and streams to flow only seasonally? A momentary google search brought me to the EPA website, and this is the first line “Small streams, including those that don’t flow all of the time, make up the majority of the country’s waters. They could be a drizzle of snowmelt that runs down a mountainside crease, a small spring-fed pond, or a depression in the ground that fills with water after every rain and overflows into the creek below. These water sources, which scientists refer to as headwater streams, are often unnamed and rarely appear on maps. Yet the health of small streams is critical to the health of the entire river network and downstream communities. These small streams often appear insignificant, but in fact are very important, as they feed into and create our big rivers.” Just sayin 🙂

  3. Chuck Gillooley on September 20, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I don’t disagree at all to the importance of our creek system (or storm drainage, whatever we decide to call them!). They are vital easements throughout the city that support natural drainage toward the bay, and proper care and maintenance of these waterways is essential. It wasn’t too long ago that the creek backed up at Elm Street and Greenwood Avenues, causing flooding of a number of homes in the immediate area.

    What I take objection to is the outdated and onerous building code restrictions that prevent any structure from being built within 25 feet of the creek boundary. It’s overkill, and it unnecessarily punishes owners of creekside properties — there should be no reason that in the vast majority of residences that a 15-foot setback would not suffice perfectly, just like a normal residence. Whatever precautions that need to be taken to protect an easement that is bone dry 75% of the year should be equally feasible whether it’s 15 feet or 25 feet away. Both should be able to coexist.

  4. KCaldwell on September 21, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    From what I understand Pulgas used to flood the neighborhood where I live in Devonshire canyon along Carmelita every season. Before I moved here they put in a spillway (you can see it on the fireroad off of Chesham) which more or less solved the problem. It sounds like the regulations about building close to the creek are overkill, unless of course climate change eventually increases run-off from the hills.

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