Task Force proposing zoning changes

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The 17-member Code Enforcement Task Force, appointed by the City Council and charged with the responsibility of delivering recommendations back to the council by next month, is moving closer to meeting its goal. The goal was to return to the council with a set of recommendations to improve the highly controversial code enforcement policies of the City of Malibu, which was a major issue in the last City Council election and continues to be a constant source of media attention.

Monday’s meeting produced a set of recommendations that was the result of several months of task force meetings every Monday night, plus additional meetings of task force subcommittees, with each subcommittee handling a different area of the code enforcement issue.

Those recommendations were then voted on by the task force to be sent as its recommendation to the council for action.

“There was a lot of discussion and we reached conclusions on a half dozen items,” said John Miller, task force chair, who indicated that normally the task force does not make this much progress in one sitting.

Starting with a debate on the most difficult of the hot button topics, the task force debated the recommendations of the sub-committee, chaired by James Schoenfeld, which dealt with the issue of unpermitted structures (also sometimes referred to as grandfathering, second units, or guesthouses). Many of the unpermitted structures have been in place for years, built by previous owners, and the question of how to safely legitimize those structures was a difficult one for the task force. The problem was that one could legitimize the structures if able to prove they met the standards when it was buil. The burden and the expense of proving that was financially and factually overwhelming to most people. Only people with large resources to hire experts could tackle the proof problem, and many on the task force felt that the playing field was not level for those with lesser financial means. In a near unanimous decision, 13 of the 14 members voted to adopt the rule that it should be conclusively presumed that the unpermitted structures were built when the house was first permitted. What that means is, if a house was first permitted, for example, in 1953, all the improvements would be legitimate if they met the county rules in effect in that year, even though the improvement might actually have been built years later.

“This is about as lenient as we can get,” said a task force member.

A second sub-committee, chaired by Marissa Coughlan, drafted recommendations for a new set of rules related to renovations and rehabs of existing legally permitted family dwellings. The problem they were dealing with was the expense, complexity, and time and effort involved in making even the most minimal remodels.

While the current cap for a single-family dwelling is 18 feet in height, Coughlan’s subcommittee recommended raising the height cap to 28 feet, unless the neighborhood standard or geological reasons dictated otherwise. The impact was that people would not be forced to go to the Planning Commission for variances, which is currently the case if they want to go over 18 feet. This was the most controversial of their recommendations. It barely passed 8 to 6 with several in the minority expressing uneasiness with the impact it might have on people’s ocean views.

To deal with the problem of what to do when the laws relating to setbacks change after a house is built, they decided, 13 to 1, to recommend that setback rules for remodels should follow the rules in effect when the structures were legally permitted unless there is an encroachment into an ESHA, or a slope issue or a geology problem. In others words, follow the rules that were in existence at the time the house was built.

Another area of great unhappiness in the body politic was the requirements for what the task force described as the “ologies.” That is archaeology, biology and geology. Since the old City Council had passed a whole set of rules regarding archaeology and biology requirements, the task force voted 12 to 2 to eliminate these costly requirements in a renovation of an existing dwelling. They left the requirement of a geological review but only in areas that are identified as geologically problematic. They also recommended that in second story additions the opinion of the applicant’s licensed geologist or geotech, regarding the appropriateness of the soil to handle the footings, should be acceptable. Meaning, the city shouldn’t require applicants to duplicate the studies using the city’s people.

Their expressed hope was that this decision would ease the high cost of remodeling for residents.

The council also agreed unanimously that no new land survey will be required if the old survey is less than five years old.

Next Monday the task force will vote on a number of other recommendations and then the entire matter will ultimately go to the City Council for decision.