City Council reverses Planning Commission on two recent rulings

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The dramatically changing housing landscape in Malibu took center stage Monday, when the City Council reviewed two Planning Commission rulings. In both cases — one involving the size of a planned home in west Malibu, and the other, the extension of a deck on a proposed beachfront home — the council reversed the commission’s decision.

In the first case, the owner of a lot on Gayton Place appealed the commission’s denial of her request to approve plans for a 24-foot-tall and 4,966-square-foot home on the site.

The commission declined to approve the plans because, they said, the proposed home would adversely affect the character of the neighborhood near Cavalleri Road and because the area’s natural resources would not be protected from the development. The commission found that most homes on Gayton Place are in the 2,000- 3,000-square-foot range and few are taller than 18 feet. The commission also found that the views of Zuma Canyon would be adversely impacted.

In challenging the commission’s decision, the owner of the lot, Amy Perrone, focused mainly on the issue of neighborhood character and on the newer homes in the area. She said most homes built on the street since 1980 are comparable in size and height to her planned home, and consequently, she argued, neighborhood character would not be adversely affected by the development.

In her elaborate presentation, Perrone harshly criticized the Planning Commission, accusing it of bungling its review of the project. She also questioned the judgment of Commission Chair Jo Ruggles, who attended the meeting to answer questions about the commission’s decision, by accusing her of pursuing her own agenda rather than following the law.

Councilman Tom Hasse took Perrone to task for singling out Ruggles and her decision on the matter.

“That is not the way to proceed in a public hearing,” he said.

He nonetheless voted with the majority of the council to approve the project. He said that because of living in the area, he knew it as a neighborhood in transition.

“The homes are moving to two-story, the homes are getting larger,” he said.

Council members Joan House and Harry Barovsky, in approving the project, said Perrone could have built a much larger home without having to appear before the Planning Commission. Under the zoning ordinance, Perrone would have been permitted to build a home as large as 7,000 square feet, without commission approval, as long as the home remained below 18 feet in height.

“If we can’t approve something like this, we should throw out the zoning ordinances,” said Barovsky.

Echoing House and Barovsky, Hasse said the lot’s owners could have been “pigs” about what they wanted, but, he said, they chose not to be.

“They have been considerate of the neighborhood as it transitions,” he said.

With very little comment, Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Van Horn joined with the majority in approving the project. But Mayor Walt Keller said he could not support it because the home’s size is significantly larger than the average in the area. The fact that the neighborhood is in transition, he said, gave him more reason to hold his ground. The residents voted to incorporate, he said, to keep Malibu the way it is and to limit the number of larger homes.

“I thought that’s what we were here for and why we created a city,” he said. “To prevent or at least slow that transition.”

Deck stringline

In its second review of a Planning Commission decision, the council refused to budge from its new rules governing the seaward extension of decks on beachfront homes. The guidelines, known as the deck stringline rule, require that decks on proposed homes extend out only as far as the decks on adjacent properties, thereby preventing a property owner from encroaching on the ocean views of neighbors. The rule was gleaned from a long-standing policy of the Coastal Commission.

To determine the deck stringline for a proposed development, the planning director to draws an imaginary line from the nearest adjacent deck corner of the neighboring properties. But the Planning Commission says times have changed now that smaller beachfront homes, with standard-issue rectangular decks, are regularly recycled into sleek, modern homes, often with irregularly-shaped decks. The commission, along with some beachfront lot owners, believes the city’s current interpretation of the deck stringline can sometimes be unfair.

In a case last year involving Dan Hillman and Paul Schaeffer, two beachfront owners on Malibu Road, the council drew a stringline for Schaeffer’s proposed home from the nearest adjacent corner of Hillman’s deck, even though it was not only not the most seaward corner of the deck, it also wrapped around the side of Hillman’s house. Schaeffer sought a hardship exemption under the stringline rule because, he argued, his balcony would not protrude out as far as his neighbors’, thereby diminishing the quality of his view. But the council ruled that a hardship was not created because Schaeffer’s deck was set back from Hillman’s.

In the case before it Monday, also involving homes on Malibu Road, Planning Director Craig Ewing drew a stringline from Joel and Ann Walkers’ house, a contemporary-style home with a somewhat triangular deck, and a planned rebuild on an adjacent lot.

But the nearest adjacent corner of the Walkers’ deck was also not the most seaward corner, so the owner of the rebuild lot challenged Ewing’s determination. The Planning Commission, in December, sided with the lot’s owner, Robert Rechnitz.

At the time, the commission voiced its hope that the council would revise the rules developed in Schaeffer.

But on Monday, the council refused both to change its stringline rules and to find that Rechnitz would suffer a hardship.

Rechnitz’ attorney, William Ross, argued that the Schaeffer decision deviated from a long-standing Coastal Commission’s view on the subject. “And the Coastal Commission’s interpretation is entitled to great weight,” he said.

But, Ross argued, if the council chose to follow Schaeffer and draw the stringline from the nearest adjacent corner, rather than the nearest seaward corner, his client would suffer a hardship, because his balcony would not extend as far as the Walkers’.

Mayor Walt Keller said the council should remain consistent in its decisions and draw the stringline from the nearest adjacent corner, rather than the most seaward one.

Hasse and Van Horn joined with him in refusing to find that Rechnitz would suffer a hardship. All three pointed out that Rechnitz could not suffer one because his balconies measured 2,000 square feet.

“If he wants more deck, just move the [house] back, it’s as simple as that,” said Keller.

But Rechnitz did not claim a hardship over the size of his balcony but rather because his would not extend out as far as the Walkers’.

Barovsky and House strongly protested the council majority’s decision. Barovsky said the city originally adopted the Coastal Commission policy on drawing stringlines from the most seaward corner. The new policy, he said, is unfair.

“It’s a rule that pits neighbor against neighbor,” he said. “It’s untenable.”

House, who dissented in the Schaeffer case, said she still strongly disagreed with that ruling.

“The law supports the Walkers, but I can’t support the law,” she said.