Adopting a traditional test for development in beachfront areas, the Planning Commission voted Monday that the “stringline” limiting decks or other structures at the edge of the beach would be drawn “between the nearest adjacent corner of the seaward side of the house or deck nearest the subject property.” Chairman Andrew Stern joined with Commissioners Jo Ruggles and Charleen Kabrin in borrowing draft language proposed by the L.A. County Local Coastal Program Committee.
By a vote of 3-2, the commission rejected a staff recommendation that would have used an average of each neighbors’ deck frontage — with a stringline drawn from each averaged point. Commissioner Ken Kearsley described the approach as a liberal interpretation that would be fair to all. He denounced the formula picked by the majority as punitive.
Commissioner Ed Lipnick also voted in favor of averaging, but only when it was clear there was no support for his formula that would draw the line “between the furthest seaward corner of the adjacent house or deck.”
According to a staff report, this language would have extended new development to the outermost limit of the existing development pattern. Lipnick, noting he is the only member of the commission who lives on the beach, said the owner should be able to get exactly as much as his neighbor, but not less. He said the option chosen by the majority — known as draft LCP 396 — was the worst of the options. Under this approach, he said, the outcome is determined by who goes first, with an obvious penalty or disparity for the owner of a vacant lot.
Planning Director Craig Ewing tried in vain to dispel the notion that Malibu’s approach should resemble that of the California Coastal Commission. He explained the Coastal Commission uses interpretive guidelines that can be applied without regard to the “ink on the page.” He said the LCP draft was “way too watery” and contained “vague references” that would be difficult to administer.
In a second 3-2 split, Ruggles was unable to garner a majority for language that would draw the stringline only from structures that were built with valid permits. “We’re sinking into a morass,” lamented Kearsley. Lipnick said he sympathized with the problem posed by “bootlegged” decks but submitted the city lacked the forensic capability to distinguish between illegal structures and those that had been “grandfathered.”
Stern cast the deciding vote, explaining he was wary of adding “a layer of tension and stress” to the applicant with additional cost and delay. He promised to revisit the issue at a subsequent meeting if suitable language can be drafted.
By a 5-0 vote, the commission agreed owners who claim the drawing of the stringline creates a hardship can request a variance. Under this procedure, neighbors will be notified in advance of a hearing.
The split on the commission surfaced anew in an appeal by Gilbert and Joanne Segel from a stringline determination by Planning Director Ewing on a beachfront pool proposed by their neighbor on PCH. Segel, through his attorney Frank Angel, argued the pool must be behind the seaward edge of an existing deck. “The two reference points on the east and west have not changed at all,” said Angel.
Kabrin challenged the accuracy of a schematic drawing submitted to the commission. She also asserted that what appears as a deck is in fact simply wooden slats lying directly on the ground. Ruggles remarked once the line is drawn, the commission should not be asked to revisit the matter. She also insisted the neighbor’s pool would interfere with a public easement guaranteeing lateral access to beachgoers when weather conditions dictate.
Kearsley remarked the issue is solely whether Ewing drew the line properly and concluded staff followed the rules. “The other issues [are] rhetoric,” he said.
Ewing pleaded for some guidance. “Tell me what is correct,” he declared, adding his role is to enforce a zoning code. Ruggles asserted her vote turns on the existence of a pool that cannot jut out on the sand beyond the deck. “That’s not in the code,” he replied, insisting it gives a new house or a pool the same treatment.
Ewing lamented, “You’re giving me direction as to how to apply the zoning code from here on. … You don’t make policy one case at a time, except as it changes forever how we do things. And this will change forever how we do stringlines.” At one point in the debate, he said, “Maybe, I’m speaking Chinese.”
Voting with Ruggles and Kabrin, Stern alluded to the role of the City Council and said, “We’re not the last step in this deal.”