New Rules to Slash Home Sizes Up for Public Discussion

The chart above shows the comparison between current allowed total development square feet, the staff proposed amount and the amount requested by city council at a meeting in February 2019.

Own a house in Malibu?

Might want to sell it one day?

Then you should consider attending Monday night’s Malibu Planning Commission meeting.

On the agenda is a proposed municipal code amendment “modifying regulations to reduce the amount of allowed total development square footage,” and, whether you consider the proposal a rational way to cut back on mansionization and protect neighborhood character or a forced downzoning of residential property that could decimate home values citywide, with only a handful of items on the evening’s agenda, it appears city staff and commissioners have allocated plenty of time for robust discussion.

August 2017

The idea for the code change originally appeared in 2017 when council members reviewed a proposal to define “neighborhood character”—after the realization there was no definition in the code.

“A recent project appeal before city council generated a discussion about neighborhood character as it relates to making one of the findings required to grant a site plan review for a coastal development permit,” a staff report for the August 2017 meeting read. “The required Local Coastal Program finding is ‘that the project does not adversely affect neighborhood character.’ This finding is also required in order to grant a minor modification. No existing city codes define neighborhood character or set forth a methodology for its evaluation.”

At that meeting, then-Mayor Pro Tem Rick Mullen pushed hard to enact a proposal that would have essentially allowed city staff to determine certain proposed homes were too large to fit in with the “neighborhood character” of the other homes in the area.

No one else on council at the time—Laura Rosenthal, Lou La Monte, Skylar Peak or Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner—agreed; council voted, 3-1, to ask staff to gather more information on the proposal. La Monte—who has since been termed out of office—voted “no,” ostensibly because he was so against the idea he did not want information to be gathered to look into it further.

At the August 2017 meeting, La Monte said the measure would hurt property values and result in older Malibu residents losing out when they try to sell their older homes.

“This—no matter what anyone says here—will definitely affect property values,” La Monte said prior to the vote. “If you don’t believe it, just look at history.”

“It’s considerate, when you’re moving into a neighborhood, to fit into the neighborhood as best you can … It’s the right thing to do,” Mullen argued, but other council members urged caution.

Then-Mayor Peak said: “I think no matter what we decide to do, if we move forward with this, we’re going to need a lot more input.”

February 2019

In February of this year, the item once more came before council, now with members Karen Farrer and Mikke Pierson replacing Rosenthal and La Monte.

According to statements at the February 2019 meeting, city council was frustrated that without specific rules, planning commissioners had “arbitrarily” denied certain house projects, in Farrer’s words.

Pierson, a former planning commissioner, was in support of the new limits, which draw a map for planners and home builders alike. “We need clear definition… It’s absolutely unfair to go through the process and have no idea how it’ll end,” he said.

That council voted, 4-1, with Farrer dissenting, to request city staff write up the text amendment to the municipal code that would cap home sizes according to a sliding scale.

According to what council requested at the Feb. 25 city council meeting, the maximum allowable square feet for a new home would be 8,500; that size would only be allowed for homes in neighborhoods where the average home size was that big or larger. The average size for the majority of homes in Malibu would be kept to 75 percent of that, with allowances decreasing for smaller lot sizes. Currently, the maximum square footage for homes is determined based on lot size, with larger homes allowed on larger lots. The ratio of lot size to maximum square footage would remain the same.

Monday night

Now, staff is recommending a few changes when it goes up for review before the planning commission—members of which have already expressed enthusiastic support for neighborhood standard legislation.

The staff’s recommendation would do away with the proposed 75 percent reduction and include no averaging process. They also recommend only applying the new zoning rules to RR [rural residential] zoned properties. “This option provides a simple, predictable, objective TDSF [total development square feet] standard and would achieve the reduction in house size Council has expressed interested (sic) in,” a staff report stated.

But in the time since the February meeting, furor has grown among homeowners who feel the new, strict caps on home size disproportionately affect Malibu’s older, longtime residents who have been hoping to cash in on homes they bought as far back as the 1960s. Much of that furor was fueled by one interest group, Together for Residential Size Fairness (TDSF), which was the first to inform many homeowners of the proposed change. Though not explicitly stated, the address for TDSF is shared with that of local development consultant Don Schmitz & Associates.

The city has fielded a barrage of letters from irate property owners, which are available by visiting and scrolling down through the staff report.

“I am the owner of a vacant lot on the land side of Pacific Coast Highway … It is a vacant lot of 34,091 [square feet]. I have owned and paid taxes on this property for 15 years,” one property owner wrote in. “I don’t know how to express my grief and sense of indignancy that I feel but to say that the new proposal by the City of Malibu City Council to reduce property development sizes in my case almost by one half of what was allowed in the existing building codes is truly the most unfair legislation ever proposed regarding property rights in California and in the United States.”

Of the two-dozen letters available on the city website, none is in support of the proposal—though writers expressed various levels of scorn. Perhaps the most vitriolic stated: “Once again, I am awe-struck by the incompetence, ignorance and arrogance of the city council and city leaders.”

The Malibu Planning Commission meets Monday, July 1, 6:30 p.m. at Malibu City Hall.