Los Gatos man who lost family in pond tragedy could lose home in red-tape confusion

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LOS GATOS — As much as can be expected, Gary Claassen has been slowly taking the unimaginable steps of carrying on with his life after losing his entire family in a single heartbreaking moment in January.

But hardly six months after his wife Polly and young son, Trent, died in a freak accident at a frozen pond while vacationing in Kansas, Claassen is facing yet more loss. His beloved home — a source of a deep emotional connection to his wife and son — is suddenly at risk because of complicated and fluctuating planning laws. 

“I’ve had to pack, anticipating the worst,” Claassen said. “It tears me up. This was the place they loved most. We were going to retire here.”

Claassen’s four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,050-square-foot house is located off Old Santa Cruz Highway north of Holy City in Los Gatos. The 43-year-old is between jobs and depends on a downstairs renter — living in what is known as an “in-law” unit — to help pay the mortgage.

In March, barely a month after the deaths of his wife and son, someone complained to the county that the in-law unit was in violation of county building code, but in a bit of good fortune for Claassen, a change in state law gave people with illegal “Accessory Dwelling Units” like his the opportunity to bring them into compliance.

Claassen began discussions with county planners to do just that.

“I wanted to make it right,” he said. “I was calling the county, the inspector came out …  and in the beginning of May I got a phone call that made me so happy, from the county’s building department: They said ‘We will make an exception to your house, we will allow you to have two units.’”

A window between old and newly enacted county ordinances meant that a looser state law was in effect, to Claassen’s apparent benefit. But in late June, when the new county ordinance regarding in-law units went into effect, Claassen got another call.

“It was from the planning department,” Claassen said. “They overturned the original decision. It was devastating.”

Mark Ruffing of the county’s code compliance department said he feels for Claassen.

“What he’s going through, that’s unthinkable,” Ruffing said. “It’s completely understandable that he would feel very frustrated with the process, and we are reaching out — if he needs more time, and it’s reasonable, we’re willing to do that and resolve this so it takes care of the violation.”

But so far the two sides haven’t been able to reach a solution.

Built in the mid-1940s, the house has long been considered a duplex by owners and longtime residents in the area. And it was advertised as a duplex when Claassen and his family bought it in 2015, renovated and rented the downstairs unit.

County zoning records, however, show it is a single-family home.

In January, a new state law went into effect to encourage more housing units on larger lots and permit some previously illegal units, which stood in place until local jurisdictions approved their own updated ordinances.

Santa Clara County adopted such a law, effective June 22, that allowed a second housing unit on a half-acre of rural land, instead of the previous one-acre minimum requirement. But Claassen’s property falls short because it’s a third of an acre.

Ruffing contends the change in laws wouldn’t have necessarily affected Claassen’s situation. Planner Rob Eastwood said lot size is only one requirement — the site would have to meet septic, fire and other standards.

“We don’t want to open or close any doors,” Eastwood said. “The goal is to give Mr. Claassen every opportunity we can.”

Claassen isn’t the only one who would lose his home. The family renting the downstairs unit — Christina Temple, her husband, William, daughter, Guinevere, and Rusty the diminutive terrier — has been his surrogate family since the tragedy, and would have to leave as well.

“My best friends need to move out,” he said.

“If we go, Gary has to go,” Temple said, referring to how Claassen can’t afford to stay without the rental income. “We were a family before Polly and Trent passed. Since January it’s been much deeper.”

And they don’t have a comparable place lined up, either, primarily because they were paying rent far below market value.

“We’ve been offered an RV on someone’s property, that’s about it,” Temple said.

Claassen doesn’t know who reported his home as illegal, and he doesn’t think it was personal. Tips are the primary way the county hears about violations — there aren’t crews out looking for noncompliant structures — and they receive between 70 to 90 a year.

“It’s only conjecture on reasons why,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone would have said, ‘I don’t like these people’ or ‘I don’t like this house.’”

Claasen’s eyes well up with tears when he thinks about how the house was so much more than a home. His wife, Polly, who had just taken a job as the youth director at Christ Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, offered the home as a refuge to those who were down on their luck.

“She loved this place, she loved this home, and she loved welcoming people into this home,” Claassen said, adding that his wife “knew the value of giving a space to people, a place of peace.”

Claassen could hardly keep his composure when he played a recording of his eulogy for his wife, where he quoted a letter she had written someone about the home. 

Polly Claassen relished the “kids and the joyful mayhem and laughter in the days, and peaceful tranquility of the evenings,” he reads.

Claassen, who began working part time after Polly got a promotion to focus on raising their son, is currently on the cusp of a stable job, but his attention now is on fighting to keep his home.

“I know we will be good somehow,” he said. “Even now, people ask, ‘Are you living alone?’ I’m alone in a way, yet my house is not void, it’s not empty. Because I have the most wonderful family living with me downstairs.”



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