Design ordinance completed, goes before council

Hoping to fulfill one of the main objectives behind the city’s incorporation, the Planning Commission last week wrapped up its work on proposed housing design regulations that, if adopted by the City Council, would impose strict new design requirements on new homes and remodels. The proposed ordinance would also give the commission expansive new powers to approve or deny an unprecedented number of projects that would now be subject to the commission’s review.

Much of the thrust behind the campaign to incorporate as a city was a desire to control local development. The General Plan and the city’s zoning ordinances address residential and commercial development, but the City Council, heeding residents’ complaints that some of the hillside houses built since incorporation are a blight on the community, asked the commission last year to draft an ordinance that would permit closer regulation of hillside development.

But after months of discussion and debate, the commission was unable to agree on how steep a hillside slope to set as the threshold for regulation. Commission Chair Jo Ruggles and Commissioner Charleen Kabrin pushed for regulations for homes on slopes as low as 10 percent or 15 percent, while the other commissioners advocated less sweeping regulations.

In an attempt to break through the deadlock, Planning Director Craig Ewing proposed a compromise in January that added flat-lot properties to the regulation’s purview, while subjecting fewer hillside properties to the design requirements than Ruggles and Kabrin had originally envisioned.

Currently, proposed housing developments more than 18 feet tall or planned for a hillside slope greater than 33 percent must pass the Planning Department’s site plan review process. Under Ewing’s proposal, those same projects would now be subject to the new design requirements. The regulations control a host of design elements, but generally require homes to blend into the natural terrain.

The proposed ordinance also permits the planning staff, for the first time, not to take any action on a project and instead refer it to the commission for review.

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Ewing said he anticipates that many projects will be referred to the commission. He said the staff will probably approve only the most straightforward of project designs and pass on those with any potential controversy.

“The highly visible, potentially troublesome ones will go to you, generally speaking,” Ewing told the commissioners last week. He said he thought “it was a good thing” that the commission would be reviewing more proposed housing developments.

“The Planning Commission hasn’t [reviewed] enough of the projects that have gone through,” he said.

The proposed ordinance provides an exception for houses that are not visible from neighboring properties or roadways. Under the so-called “no-see-um” rule, hidden and isolated homes would not be subject to the design regulations. Ewing anticipates that most no-see-um projects will be reviewed by the commission because the staff would not feel comfortable rendering a judgment in those cases.

The proposal also requires a wider sweep of neighbors to be notified of a housing project, depending on how populated a neighborhood is. For example, residents in the most isolated parts of the city will be notified if they live within a 2,000-foot radius of the development, but the radius drops to the standard 500 feet in the most populated areas. Ruggles particularly is concerned that not enough canyon residents are currently being notified about pending projects.

“People have come in here screaming bloody murder that there’s something going in right across the canyon and they weren’t notified,” she said. “I’d rather notify too many people than not enough.”

If the ordinance is adopted by the City Council after public hearings next month, the commission plans to assess its effectiveness after its first year on the books.

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