City faces lines in the sand

As sleek, modern homes slowly but surely replace the more modest beachfront bungalows from an earlier Malibu era, city officials are finding themselves at odds over an obscure detail in the zoning laws.

In the years before the city’s incorporation, the Coastal Commission had little difficulty determining how far a proposed beachfront home’s deck could extend towards the ocean. The commission drew an imaginary line from the decks of adjacent properties to set how far the proposed balcony could project seaward. This so-called deck stringline rule, which was incorporated into the city’s zoning code, permits a proposed balcony to extend out only as far as the imaginary line, thereby preventing a property owner from encroaching on the ocean views of neighbors.

To fix the precise point of the imaginary line, the city’s planning staff, like the Coastal Commission before it, uses the nearest adjacent corners of neighboring properties to draw the stringline.

But while the commission drew stringlines from the neat right angles of conventional rectangular decks, the planning staff is drawing stringlines from more contemporary-designed balconies, most of which come in a variety of geometric shapes.

And those irregularly shaped decks, some city officials say, may mean that some adjacent property owners are not getting the balcony size to which they should be historically entitled.

During a hearing on a deck stringline case last month, Planning Commissioner Ed Lipnick said the intent of the Coastal Commission’s stringline rule, which the city adopted, “was to give each property owner the same rights as the adjacent property owner, no more, no less. Your building can go out as far as your neighbors’, and your deck can go as far out as your neighbors’.”


The case before the Planning Commission involved a stringline that Planning Director Craig Ewing drew between an existing, modern home on Malibu Road, with a somewhat triangular deck, and a planned rebuild on an adjacent lot. The lot on the other side of the planned rebuild is currently vacant.

Ewing followed the zoning code requirement to draw a stringline from the nearest adjacent corner of the existing home’s deck. But because that corner is not the most seaward corner of the deck, Ewing’s decision meant the deck on the adjacent lot would be set back somewhat from the deck on the existing home. Following the lead of the City Council, which strictly interpreted the stringline rule in a separate case last year, Ewing also determined that such a setback did not result in a hardship for the adjacent property owner, Robert Rechnitz.

Rechnitz appealed Ewing’s decision to the commission, which, after voicing considerable disagreement with the council’s decision last year, sided with Rechnitz.

The City Council’s case last year arose from a dispute over a stringline drawn from Dan Hillman’s Malibu Road house and a home proposed by a neighboring property owner, Paul Schaeffer.

The council drew a stringline from the nearest adjacent corner of Hillman’s deck,. but because his deck wraps around the side of his house, the nearest adjacent corner of Hillman’s deck is not on the seaward side of his home. As in the Rechnitz case, Schaeffer’s deck would be set back from Hillman’s deck.

While the zoning code permits a hardship exemption under the stringline rule, the council refused to find that Schaeffer would experience a hardship solely because his deck would be set back about 10 feet from Hillman’s deck.

In the Rechnitz case, the Planning Commission refused to follow the council’s narrow reading of the hardship exemption. Members of the commission, citing the historical intention behind the deck stringline rule, decided a hardship exists when a property owner is not permitted to extend a deck out as far as adjacent property owners.

The owners of the house next to Rechnitz’ lot, Joel and Ann Walker, have filed an appeal of the commission’s decision, but the commissioners clearly hope the council will revise its thinking on the hardship exemption.

Commissioner Ken Kearsley said the Schaeffer case was “bad law,” and he suggested the council’s decision was a personal favor for Hillman. “Schaeffer was written for one person, and the Walkers only want what that one person, Dan Hillman, got. It’s only fair,” he said. “But the problem is, the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Commission Chair Jo Ruggles said she would like to see the zoning code amended to specify that the stringline be drawn from the most seaward corner of the deck. She also said she could envision property owners intentionally including false decks on their homes to limit the extent to which their neighbors’ decks could project towards the beach.

“This could happen again, where we have points sticking out but not decks at all,” she said.

Ewing said he has noticed deck designs with so little projection that the stringline would be pulled back away from the ocean. He said he is currently reviewing two other, very similar, stringline cases.

“There’s no question that we’re not done with these,” he said.

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

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