Fears expressed over zoning code update

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Architects and developers welcome revisions to zoning language in the city’s municipal code, which city staff say are necessary to streamline a cumbersome development review process. However, slow-growth advocates say minor changes have big consequences.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

Given Malibu’s creation narrative, in which a small seaside community banded together to prevent becoming South Beach West, any changes to the city’s development policies inevitably attract fierce debate. Case in point: last week’s series of public input sessions to explore revisions to the city’s zoning code, written shortly after incorporation in 1993.

The intent of the revisions, as stated by city staff, is to eliminate inconsistencies within the code and bring it into line with the city’s General Plan, as well as with its Local Coastal Plan, which will also be updated by 2012. Planning officials and members in the business community say the update is needed to streamline a development review process that takes far too long, but slow-growth advocates say that any changes in language inevitably result in more relaxed rules for development.

The day-long sessions last week gathered input from developers, architects and the business community stating their preferences for changes in the zoning code. It ended with a vociferous session from residents and slow-growth activists who said any changes to zoning language should be clearly identified with a red line copy.

In addition to shortening the time it takes to receive building permits, architects and developers suggested a host of changes they characterized as simple and straightforward.

One would be to count outdoor porches and patios toward the square footage of the ground floor, which would allow for larger second stories. The current rule allows the second floor of a house to be only be two-thirds the square footage of the ground floor.

Local architect Lester Tobias also suggested that the rule prohibiting three-story houses be eliminated, since single-family residential homes are already required to be no taller than 28 feet. As long as the house does not exceed that height, Tobias said it should not matter how many stories are in the house. Some residents countered that was merely an excuse for architects to make more money by adding square footage to the houses they design.

A third issue involved the language on remodels, which currently prohibits homeowners from rebuilding more than 50 percent of a home’s walls without applying for an additional permit. Several said getting a new permit added unnecessary time and expense to the process and that the remodel language should be clarified to expressly state what constitutes removing a wall.

Tobias said the majority of the suggestions were straightforward.

“With very few exceptions, the things that I think most of the local architects would like to see are really things that are just proven to be sort of nonsensical,” Tobias told The Malibu Times Monday.

However, many of the residents who spoke at the end of the day opposed the suggestions made by those in the business community. Former planning commissioner and slow-growth advocate Jo Ruggles said what may appear to be minor tweaks in language often result in major changes in interpretation. During her time on the planning commission, Ruggles said she learned, “You can’t change language without changing intent. We learned that saying ‘and’ or ‘or’ or ‘should’ as opposed to ‘will’ has humongous impacts.”

Ruggles said when she and others asked Lisa Wise, the consultant hired by the city to oversee the zoning code update, if she was planning on changing any of the development standards, “she hesitated.” Ruggles said any changes made to zoning language should be explicitly shown in a red line document.

“If you’re going to change a standards or a setback rule, it’s very important there’s a red line because one word can change the whole meaning of that entire paragraph,” Ruggles said.

Joyce Parker-Bozylinski, the city’s planning department director, said creating a true red line document showing the exact changes would be difficult, “because you could be moving large sections from one [area] to the other. So just moving it shows they’ve been deleted. Many of the sections may just be worded so they read better.”

Parker-Bozylinski said Wise would prepare a document tracking every change that is made. That document is expected to be completed within two months, she said.

“It won’t be in the traditional red line format, but it will be a report that indicates where all the changes were made so that the public will be able to go to each section and say OK, this was changed in this way, this was changed in that way,” Parker-Bozylinski said.

Ruggles said planning staff had told her that developers and architects complained when denied permission for certain things based on the municipal code’s intent, when that intent was not explicitly stated in the code. Ruggles said instead of deleting or altering language regarding development standards, staff should simply identify problem areas and add a footnote.

“Put a subparagraph that says intent,” Ruggles said. “So that it’s real clear. So that we have bright lines.”

Tobias said he felt the perception of what was at stake in the zoning code update had been blown out of proportion.

“Some people are looking at this like a complete re-write of the zoning code, or revisiting the general plan, and I know that’s not what the planning department has in mind here,” he said.

Tobias said he welcomed a debate on whether houses in Malibu are too big, but said that was not the issue at hand.

Planning Commissioner John Mazza, who in the past has been critical of efforts to soften development standards, expressed qualified support for the process.

“Staff’s doing a good job trying to clean up the zoning code,” Mazza said. “We’ll have to see if there are any substantial changes that result that need to be reviewed.”