Council rejects hillside ordinance


Taking plans for hillside housing regulations back to square one, the City Council last week largely rejected the Planning Commission’s year-long effort to fashion an ordinance regulating the design of new homes and remodels.

On the council’s direction, the Planning Commission last year set out to draft zoning regulations for hillside development, after residents complained the hills were sprouting gargantuan eyesores. The commission agreed on a set of strict, new design guidelines that, taken as a whole, generally require homes to blend into the natural terrain. But the commission had trouble reaching consensus on how steep a slope to set as the threshold for regulation until the staff proposed extending the design regulations to all proposed homes and remodels over 18 feet tall, as well as those planned for hillside slopes greater than 33 percent. The recommendation by Planning Director Craig Ewing, proposed in an effort to break a months-long deadlock between commissioners, also grants the commission expansive new powers to review housing projects.

In a special meeting last week, the City Council members thanked the commission for its work on the proposed ordinance, but most council members indicated they felt the proposal was too strict and far-reaching.

Councilwoman Joan House questioned one of the stated goals of the development management program, that of encouraging “the best professional design practices.”

House asked, “What does that mean?”

She also expressed concerns about a proposed prohibition of nonreflective building materials and restrictions on exterior lighting.

In response to what some residents say is a glut of homes bathed in exterior lights, the Planning Commission recommended that such lighting be limited, of low intensity and downward cast. But House said such a requirement could force residents to give up motion-detecting security lighting.

Councilman Tom Hasse said he could not support the commission’s recommendation that a home’s architecture and color blend into the natural landscape.

“I kind of like the eclectic architecture of Malibu,” he said.

Hasse also rejected the threshold for regulation recommended by the commission and said the city should instead use topographic maps to determine the hillside areas. The rest of the council, other than Councilman Walt Keller, readily agreed to the proposal, although Keller joined with his colleagues in supporting a motion instructing staff to investigate the price of the maps. The Planning Commission had rejected the mapping approach out of concern the cost would be prohibitive. Current estimates of such a project are between $400,000 and $500,000.

Even with the maps, the council must still determine how steep a slope to set as the threshold for regulation, but most council members made clear, following remarks by Keller, they will not support applying new regulations to homes situated on shallow slopes. Keller alone backed the recommendations of the commission and said what constitutes a hillside is a “no-brainer” because the General Plan defines property with a slope of 10 percent or greater as a hill.

But the rest of the council saw a threshold of 10 percent as too far-reaching.

“This goes to the heart of how do you manage change … to allow new families moving in to add on … change their homes,” said Hasse. “If you don’t allow this, we will have a political revolution that will change the composition of the City Council, and then we’ll defeat what we’re trying to protect.”

And, said Mayor Pro Tem Harry Barovsky, “if a hill is defined at 10 percent, that would cover 90 percent of Malibu … think about this, a home is a person’s single biggest asset.”

But Mayor Carolyn Van Horn said she saw other, more natural assets in Malibu worth protecting as well, like ridge lines and environmentally sensitive habitat areas.

“We’re not talking about an investment in the stock market,” she said.

In keeping with its current bent for creating committees to tackle issues in the city, the council then agreed to form a committee of architects and engineers to review the commission’s proposed ordinance and report its recommended changes back to the panel.

The work of the new, as yet unappointed, committee may be somewhat duplicative. In a series of workshops last year on the proposed ordinance, the commission was lobbied by a number of architects and the commission incorporated many of their suggestions into the proposed zoning regulations.