Hillside houses blight landscape

Malibu hillsides are dotted with too many houses that stick out instead of blending into the landscape, according to Planning Commissioners who want to prevent further visual blight.

The commission met Saturday to discuss making changes to current zoning regulations that would limit the size and appearance of future hillside development. Along with a building’s bulk and size, other visual concerns such as color choices and landscaping were addressed.

These concerns have become a high priority, with more than 210 projects moving through the city’s permit pipeline, according to Planning Director Craig Ewing.

“In the next three years, probably all of Malibu development will be coming before us because of the economy, so we need to set some guidelines,” said Commissioner Charleen Kabrin.

Those guidelines are meant to prevent the type of projects that the commission has heard so many complaints about from longtime residents. Commissioner Jo Ruggles provided those at the meeting with photos of the worst examples. They included two-story houses with large basements creating a three-story appearance, as well as white houses with red-tiled roofs. “If we can see them and they [the residents] are complaining, then we’re doing something wrong,” Ruggles said. She believes the city has abandoned a land-use policy that “blends development with the natural topography,” as expressed in the city’s General Plan.

Ewing challenged Ruggles’ contention that the city was largely to blame. He explained that most major hillside projects constructed since Malibu became a city were approved under county zoning, fire rebuild or overlay standards. “What we’re seeing now is a lot of projects built today built under county zoning rulings, not city. But they are valid. They are county-approved projects we have to allow,” Ewing said. He explained that there are some county-approved projects that haven’t even begun yet.

Despite having only a few examples of projects built under current zoning regulations, the commission decided to debate certain deficiencies in the code.

For one thing, “size does matter,” quipped Commissioner Lipnick, who was referring to the penchant of homeowners to build as much square footage on as much land as possible. One solution considered by the commission is public review of hillside projects that exceed a certain size. Exactly what size would be determined after receiving a recommendation from Ewing, who will first discuss the matter with his staff and design professionals in the community.

Decisions about size are currently made at the city staff level, and local architects who attended the meeting favored keeping this approach. Local resident and architect Lester Tobias explained that the city staff is made up of professionals who are well-qualified to make such decisions. Tobias also expressed concern about the added costs and delays of creating another level of bureaucracy, which Ewing estimated would amount to an additional two to six weeks before project approval. “It [already] costs a homeowner $15,000 to figure out if he can build a guest house,” warned Tobias.

Directly related to the problem of size is the trend toward building large basements. The current code limits buildings to two stories, but basements are not counted as a story. The code doesn’t even define “basement.” Too often, the result is a basement that looks like another story and is used as another living space instead of for storage. Ewing said he would provide alternatives for solving this problem.

Responding to complaints about the jarring visual impact of white houses with red-tiled roofs, Kabrin wondered, “Should we legislate attractiveness? What is reasonable here?” There is presently no regulation of color.

Commissioner Ken Kearsley expressed reservations about stifling freedom of expression, “I have a hard time saying, ‘Hey guy, you can’t have a red roof.'”

Trying to reassure the architects at the meeting, Lipnick said, “We are not here to restrict your creativity, but what we are here to do is protect the important values of the community.” A decision on the matter was postponed until later.

The thorny issue of landscaping was also addressed. The current code’s main concern is that plants not obstruct views from other properties. Commissioners felt that another consideration should be the view from the PCH, with plants helping to soften the look of buildings on the hillside.

Ruggles said, “We want to keep the neighborhood the same. The code allows more than what the community wants.”

The next meeting of the commission is set for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 3 at HRL.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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