Hillside ordinance still a work in progress

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After more than a year of study and deliberation, the Planning Commission has submitted its vision of a program to manage, modify, control and, in some cases, discourage development on Malibu’s hillsides. Commissioners explained and defended the draft Hillside Management Program in a joint meeting Monday with the City Council, which also heard public comment on the issue.

After thanking commissioners for their considerable efforts, which included studying similar ordinances of 16 other California cities, the council nonetheless found the report wanting and declined to approve it in its present form.

The document was criticized for being too vague in some aspects and too specific in others. A major objection seemed to be that the commissioners could become the arbiters of style and taste, and even the color of private homes.

John Wall asked, “Is the red tile of my roof earth-toned? Certainly it is the color of the clay that made it. Or the white walls? Certainly white marble of a similar shade can be found.” Mayor Walt Keller would later remark that white would be fine if it snowed in Malibu.

Architects, many of whom contributed ideas, drawings and even models during the planning process, weighed in on the importance of the ordinance being specific enough so they would not have to redesign and resubmit plans several times to get each project approved.

Establishing the Hillside Management Program would require a zone text amendment, which staff recommends along with modifications to the Site Plan Review process to incorporate guidelines for site planning, design, lighting and landscaping that would apply to any structures exceeding 18 feet in height or located on a slope of 33 percent or greater.

Provisions for exceeding the city’s grading limitation to 1,000 cubic yards would allow for notching the structure into the hillside. The grading limit would also be increased if needed for 25-foot-wide driveways and turnarounds required by the fire department. It was generally agreed that anything required by a public agency for safety, including retaining walls higher than 6 feet, would be permitted.

Controlling excessive bulk and mass was a primary concern, Planning Chair Jo Ruggles said, in order to protect views, as well as vulnerable habitat and native vegetation.

The slope-density formula was left out, Ruggles said, because it had been left to the end of the process. Councilmembers agreed it needed to be in the final document. Of the 16 cities whose ordinances were studied — places as different as Montecito and Rancho Cucamonga — definitions of hillsides (ranging from slopes of 10 percent to 25 percent) varied as much as how and where to situate buildings on them. Ruggles said the commission “blended a variety of all those ordinances.”

In an effort to keep from adding another layer of bureaucracy, Planning Director Craig Ewing had suggested the Hillside Management Ordinance, with its goals and guidelines, be folded into the Site Plan Review process.

Norm Haynie said a retaining wall should not be limited to 6 feet if it can’t be seen, particularly if it is behind the house and allows the building to be notched into the slope.

In urging the council not to vote on the document, architect Ed Niles said, “I fully support the planning director’s and the community’s need to have a hillside management concept — call it a zone, an area — but I don’t agree with the process as outlined because I think it’s totally discretionary.” Niles, who had contributed many models and drawings to the planning process, said he didn’t see any of them included. He urged the council to discuss: “What are we doing here? Are we developing stealth buildings? Are we just trying to reduce the mass?”

Brady Westwater said, “Of the dozen masterpieces that Frank Lloyd Wright built in the Los Angeles area, not a single one of them could be built under this ordinance. No one could have any idea how to design a house in Malibu once this ordinance is passed. It’s replacing the rule of law with guidelines that are totally subjective.”

Commissioner Ken Kearsley and Councilwoman Joan House took issue with the guidelines discouraging use of skylights and large areas of glass without considering their energy-saving benefits.

Councilman Harry Barovsky asked for a definition of “neighborhood harmony.” Ruggles responded, “Not dis-harmonious. . . .blending, compatible.” Barovsky asked, “Is that a neighborhood where everything is the same?” “Yes.” Barovsky said, “I’m not even close to being able to vote on this.”

City Manager Harry Peacock clarified that of the four things that would trigger site-plan review, “You need to define standards for the minimum size of the house and the minimum slope. The height of 18 feet and grading of 1,000 cubic yards are in there. You don’t want to set those triggers so low that everything goes to the Planning Commission.”

City Attorney Christi Hogin helped House define her motion to: refer the current draft to the Environmental Review Board; direct planning staff to circulate it to resource agencies; have staff provide copies of the ordinances of the 16 cities to council members; ask architects’ models be brought to City Hall; have council members submit ideas and revisions; and for the planning director to prepare a report and draft ordinance to be reviewed by the city attorney and placed on the council agenda. Motion was seconded by Van Horn, passed unanimously, Keller adding “reluctantly.”