Less is more at commission


The Planning Commission Monday offered a sneak preview of how it would review future housing projects under the proposed housing design guidelines, and comments by a majority of commissioners indicate they will not be casting a favorable eye on plans for large homes.

The proposed guidelines, which will be considered by the City Council in hearings next month, require new homes and remodels taller than 18 feet or planned for hillside slopes greater than 33 percent to be limited in their mass and bulk, and to blend into the natural terrain surrounding a building site.

The proposed regulations, as drafted by the commission, also provide commissioners with new and expansive powers to approve or deny projects.

On Monday, the commission reviewed plans for an 8,318-square-foot home off of Via Escondido as part of the property owner’s request for a variance for a retaining wall.

Commissioners Ken Kearsley and Ed Lipnick said they would support the project because an earthquake fault on the site limited where the house could be located, and they were happy with how the architect, Hagy Belzberg, had placed and designed the proposed home.

“Considering the constraints on the site, I think it’s quite a clever design,” said Lipnick, who returned to the commission Monday from a leave of absence following major surgery.

But the other three commissioners saw the home very differently. Vice Chair Andrew Stern said the size of the house would impact on the views of other homeowners in the neighborhood.

“Does someone have a God-given right to build a big house?” he asked.

Commissioner Charleen Kabrin said a smaller house would have fit on the site more “gracefully.” And, she said, neighbors of the site have told her the house would be too large. “I’ve discussed this with neighbors and all their thinking is: It’s just massive, it’s gigantic, it’s huge.”

Chair Jo Ruggles performed her own count of the homes in Sycamore Park and she said the majority are under 8,000 square feet.

But Lipnick said Ruggles was comparing the proposed home to those built 30 or 40 years ago, and newer and larger homes sit in the immediate vicinity of the site. He also pointed out that the commission was reviewing the size of the home only because the property owner had requested a variance.

“We’re taking this as an . . . excuse to complain about a home that is quote, unquote, too big,” he said.

Under the proposed guidelines, the commission would review far more projects than it currently does. Planning Director Craig Ewing has said previously that he anticipates the planning staff will review only the most straightforward of project designs, and those with any potential controversy will be passed on to the commission. The house the commission considered Monday would probably fall into the latter category because of its size and because it features a highly contemporary design.

Kearsley said if the commission were going to deny projects because they are too large, the city should amend the zoning ordinance to reduce the maximum size permitted.

Kabrin agreed, saying property owners often believe that because large homes are permitted, they should have the biggest allowed.

“Everybody’s always pushing it to the max,” she said.

To avoid sure defeat before the commission, the property owner’s representative, Steve Potter, agreed to investigate whether the house could be relocated on the site to reduce its visual impacts, and the vote on the project was postponed.

The commission more warmly received the other project it reviewed as part of a variance request. The proposed home, at 5,631 square feet, featured a traditional Malibu design.

“How nice to see a one-story ranch house,” said Ruggles.

The commission approved the project on Cavalleri Road on a 4-1 vote, with Kabrin voting no because she said the house was too large for the site.