Planning Commission Under Fire Over Arbitrary Permit Denials

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As early as this summer, new limitations could spell out exactly how big is too big for a new home built in Malibu—with the hope of putting an end to years of frustration over seemingly arbitrary, and often costly, planning commission permit denials.

Under new rules, 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 8,500 square feet or larger. The maximum size for the majority of homes in Malibu would be kept to 75% of that or less, 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.

This new maximum would only apply to new permits; projects with complete applications already “in the pipeline” would be grandfathered in to the old maximums. 

The change represents a firm cap on the size of new houses, in an attempt to curb “mansionization” in Malibu neighborhoods—but it is far from a new statute. 

For years, the Malibu Planning Commission has been arbitrarily denying permits on houses they deem to be too large to fit with the surrounding neighborhood, which has cost Malibu property owners money and Malibu city staffers valuable time, according to Planning Director Bonnie Blue.

“The planning commission has continued to debate extensively how to approach the neighborhood character finding. This is a required finding that the project does not adversely affect neighborhood character and it must be made in order to grant a site plan review (SPR) or minor modification,” Blue explained toward the top of the Monday, Feb. 25, city council hearing. “Several projects with SPRs and minor mods have been denied because the planning commission has found the project with a maximum TDSF [total development square footage] to adversely affect neighborhood character. The difficulty here is that when applicants find out from the planning commission that their house may be too large to get an approval, this is very late in the planning review process. Many property owners will have been working on their projects for years, only to find out they need a redesign to get an approval.”

According to longtime planning commissioner John Mazza, the issue was a “crisis” that the planning commission should be consulted on to fix—but other voices, on council and among stakeholders, argued that the commission was doing more harm than good.

Council Member Mikke Pierson, himself a former planning commissioner, was in support of the new limits. “We need clear definition,” Pierson said. “I also agree; it’s absolutely unfair to go through the process and have no idea how it’ll end.”

“You can’t go and enforce a law that hasn’t been passed yet,” Council Member Skylar Peak said, adding, “I very much hear from many people in the community that they’re frustrated with that.”

Mayor Pro Tem Karen Farrer had even stronger words for the commission—expressing frustration that the change may not be enough to stop planning commissioners from imposing their own personal standards.

“If we don’t have a commitment from the planning commission to respect the code, then no matter what the codes are, we’re going to have a problem. So that’s what we need, in my opinion,” Farrer said later in the meeting. “We need to have a commitment from the planning commission that projects with no variances will not be held up for a year—that they will go forward.

“We cannot arbitrarily decide a house is too big when it conforms in every way,” she later added.

Local Realtor Paul Grisanti put it another way: “John [Mazza] said we have a dysfunctional planning commission, and I think that if you watch any of the planning commission meetings you can see why there’s a dysfunction there. It’s time for some new blood on the planning commission.”

Council voted, 4-1, in favor of the new standards. Farrer represented the sole dissenting vote.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story provided an incorrect description of proposed new maximum TDSF—the story has been updated to clarify that 8,500 square feet is the new absolute maximum square footage for residential development. Language in the story has also been updated to clarify what “in the pipeline” means.