Monday, November 19, 2007

Hillside Ordinance Human Comedy

In case you were wondering how it is that a condo or car lot can be built behind your home in spite of your objections, it's because our city's Planning Commission spends half its time dealing with the fallout from the Hillside Overlay Ordinance. Frankly, I think our commissioners are worn down by the time one of these rolls through a meeting, and simply lack the energy to deal with any other issues.

The following is a case in point - I copied it from the September 5, 2007 Planning Commission meeting minutes (public record). This and one other HIllside project is discussed for most of the 3.5 hour meeting that began just after 7pm. My comments are in (bold italics)




Planning Commission consideration for approval of a Precise Plan of Development to allow first and second-story additions to an existing two-story, single-family residence on property located within the Hillside Overlay District in the R-1 Zone at 602 Paseo de la Playa.


Approval (that's what you think...)

Planning Associate Martinez introduced the request and noted supplemental material available at the meeting consisting of correspondence received after the agenda item was completed.

Michael Guzman, 602 Paseo de la Playa, applicant, reported that he had met with the Youngerns (536 Paseo de la Playa) to discuss their concerns as urged by the Commission at the last meeting. Submitting renderings to illustrate, he contrasted the revised project with the original design, noting that 407 square feet have been eliminated, of which 75% percent was removed specifically to address the concerns of the Youngerns. He noted that the project meets or exceeds all setback requirements; that the maximum roof height is 16 inches lower than the existing roof; and that the project will be built according to the City of Torrance green building initiative.

Commissioner Browning noted that he was not present at the previous hearing, however, he had reviewed the audiotapes and visited the site and surrounding area several times (more than once?) and believed he was qualified to participate in this hearing.

Commissioner Browning stated that he would have appreciated new elevations along with the revised plans, particularly of the front the home, because when looking at the silhouette he felt it overpowered the residence to the north. He noted that even with the revisions, the FAR (floor area ratio) still exceeds 0.50.

Mr. Guzman related his belief that the bulk of the project was mitigated by breaking up the fa├žade with a courtyard rather than building lot line to lot line, noting that the front door is 60 feet from the property line.

After a show of hands of those who wished to speak, Chairperson Busch requested that speakers limit their remarks to four minutes. (the neighbors showed up in droves).

Tim Youngern, 536 Paseo de la Playa, submitted photographs of the revised silhouette taken from different areas in his yard and maintained that the proposed project would tower over his home impacting light, air and privacy (remember this comment the next time the city approves a three story condo next door to your house). He reported that Mr. Guzman did not share the revised plans with him and contended that the changes were made to appease the Commission, not neighbors.

Mr. Youngern stated that the revised project would still act as an airfoil and block cooling ocean breezes; that it would take away light from the south side of his home; and that it would detract from the value of his property (why should he be any different from everyone else in this city?). He further stated that privacy issues have not been mitigated because windows could be changed and the roof garden/green roof could be turned into a balcony. He maintained that street noise will reverberate off the north wall of the residence into his yard and voiced his opinion that the proposed architectural design was not in harmony with the neighborhood. He urged denial of the project, noting all of the surrounding neighbors oppose it. Responding to a question posed at the last hearing, he reported that his home has an FAR of 0.32.

Matthew Kadlick, 606 Paseo de la Playa, submitted a letter detailing his opposition to the project. He reported that he and Mr. Guzman are involved in a property line dispute and that overgrown trees on the contested property have disrupted his phone service. He contended that the project would impact his privacy and adversely affect the value of his property and that the design was not cohesive with the rest of the homes in the neighborhood.

Marjorie Hill, 539 Camino de Encanto, voiced objections to the proposed project, contending that it does not comply with the Hillside Overlay Ordinance. She expressed concerns that Torrance could go the way of other beach communities where towering structures have spread like a contagious disease choking out smaller homes (sorry honey, it's already happened, just not on your street).

Robert Hill, 539 Camino de Encanto, Marjorie Hill’s son, indicated that he still has several concerns about the project, including the bulk and mass. He stated that according to his interpretation of the Hillside Overlay Ordinance, remodels are restricted to the preexisting limits of the structure, meaning that the proposed second story should be confined to the bulk and mass of the existing second story. He requested confirmation that the three transom windows would have sill heights of 6 feet and explained that modifications to the windows had not mitigated the privacy impact because the transom windows could be converted to full size windows in the future. He expressed concerns that the addition could create a wind tunnel due to the Venturi effect (this is more likely in big cities like New York, but it sure sounds impressive). He reported that Mr. Guzman did not contact his mother until after she submitted a letter of objection to the Planning Department.

Commissioner Fauk requested clarification regarding Mr. Hill’s claim of view impact at the last hearing, noting that the silhouette for the proposed project cannot be seen from his mother’s property due to trees and shrubbery.

Mr. Hill responded that they enjoy a filtered view of the sunset at the fence line (in other words, if you peer through the shrubbery and over the fence), as well as a blue sky view, that would be blocked.

Albert Ortiz, 620 Palos Verdes Boulevard, voiced objections to the proposed project, citing the impact on the Youngerns’ property (wait a minute - is this guy is no where near the property in question?!).

Pamela Moran, president of the Riviera Homeowners Association, stated that it does not seem fair or reasonable that the enjoyment or value of one person’s home should be sacrificed to increase the value of another person’s home, noting that residents treasure their privacy in an increasingly crowded world (meaning the other 90% of Torrance). She related her belief that the burden was on the applicant to prove that a project would not adversely impact other properties in the vicinity and urged the Commission to use caution when considering a project that could potentially harm neighbors (Too bad there wasn't any of this outrage when they approved the Wilson Park McCondominiums - oh yeah, hardly anyone knew about it...)

Ruth Vogel, 114 Via la Soledad, noted that she is not directly affected by the project, but has lived in the Riviera area for 47 years. She related her understanding that no one has been allowed to “piggyback” onto an existing second story due to the “grandfather clause” in the Hillside Ordinance and maintained that allowing this project would set a bad precedent. She also expressed concerns about the precedent that would be set by allowing the rooftop garden. She reported that she reviewed the Hillside Ordinance § 91.41.6, but could not find the word “significant,” as it mentions only that a project may not have an adverse impact on other properties in the vicinity.

Planning Manager Lodan clarified that there is no “grandfather clause” in the Hillside Ordinance that would limit a project to the footprint of the existing structure, noting that there have been numerous cases where first and second-story additions/expansions have been approved. He explained that there may be the perception that it’s easier to gain approval for the expansion of an existing second story as opposed to starting from scratch but there is nothing in the ordinance that addresses this issue.

Commissioner Fauk conceded that the word “significant” is not in the Hillside Ordinance, but noted that it has long been the practice of the Planning Commission and the City Council to look at a project’s impact in terms of significance, especially with regard to views. (yes, we'd hate to ruin the views they have of the congestion on Crenshaw and Hawthorne Blvds. He explained that the Commission commonly considers the quality of the view impacted, as well as the degree to which the view is impacted considering the totality of the overall view.

Monte McElroy, 108 Via Mesa Grande, provided background information about the Hillside Overlay Ordinance, which she helped formulate (ah, so YOU"RE the one responsible for this mess...), explaining that it was meant to discourage second stories, allowing them only after all other options have been exhausted. She stated that she visited the Youngerns’ residence and observed that the proposed project would shade their house and denigrate that their yard. She maintained that there was a way to minimize the impact of the project, eliminating the bulk of the square building, so that the Guzmans could still have a beautiful home without ruining their neighbors’ view and enjoyment of their property.

Roberta Blowers, 621 Camino de Encanto, voiced objections to the project, citing the impact on neighbors’ view, air, light and privacy, as well as the impact on her view. She noted that the Hillside Overlay Ordinance simply states that a proposed development shall not have an adverse impact on other properties in the vicinity and it does not specify how much or how little and offered a dictionary definition of the word “adverse.” She voiced her opinion that the project’s FAR was too high and expressed concerns that the roof garden over the garage could easily become a deck and that obscured glass in windows meant to protect privacy could easily be replaced with clear glass at any time.

Responding to audience members’ comments, Mr. Guzman contended that Mr. Kadlick’s opposition to the project was based solely on the property line dispute. He reported that the only view affected from inside the Youngerns’ home is from a kitchen window that faces an 8-foot high wall; noted that this window didn’t exist until the home was expanded two years ago; and voiced his opinion that this view does not deserve the same protection as a view from a preexisting portion of the house. He maintained that any impact on light and air to the Youngerns’ property was mitigated by the revisions, which eliminated 20 inches along the entire north wall, including from the existing structure, and 36 inches from the rear of the home adjacent to their property. He noted that he was raised in this neighborhood and is committed to responsible development. He stated that he believed he has made substantial concessions and compromises and urged approval of the project as submitted.

James Meyers, Lean Arch, Inc., project architect, noted that he has won awards for his designs, including an award from the Los Feliz Homeowners Association for best renovation project. He reported that his firm focuses on the environmental impact of land uses and related his belief that this neighborhood was a good example of an area where homes were not being designed to take advantage of natural resources, therefore, consuming much more energy than necessary. He explained that the roof garden was not meant to be used as exterior space, but rather to provide more greenery and cool and oxygenate the air. He suggested that the proposed residence should serve as model for future development and contended that the structure’s deep overhang and rectangular wings were much more in character with the ranch-style homes in this neighborhood than the Spanish-style homes being developed.

Commissioner Browning expressed concerns about the project’s impact on light to the Youngerns’ property.

Mr. Meyers noted that he submitted a shadow study which indicated that project would only impact the Youngerns’ property very late in the afternoon during winter months. Mr. Guzman pointed out that that shadow study does not reflect the revisions which moved the north wall of the residence 20 inches further away from the Youngerns. (pardon me, but logic has no place in this meeting!)

Commissioner Weideman questioned whether the roof garden could be accessed from the deck on the southeast corner of the residence.

Mr. Meyers explained that the roof garden will not have safety barriers around it and will not be used as a deck and that it was simply meant to mitigate heat gain on the south side of the residence and act as a view enhancement from windows within the residence as well as from neighboring properties. He reported that the roof garden will be maintained by professionals and access would be via a gate on the deck off the living room.

Commissioner Fauk related his understanding that only one window in the Youngerns’ residence would be shaded by the project. Mr. Guzman confirmed that the only window affected is the Youngerns’ kitchen window (where they stand for hours, sunworshipping).

Commissioner Uchima questioned whether a one-story design was considered (wait a minute - isn't this already a two story house?).

Mr. Meyers explained that expanding on the ground floor only was not feasible due to the way the existing house is designed because it would result in a massive first floor with a small penthouse on top.

In response to Commissioner Browning’s inquiry, Planning Manager Lodan advised that the area called out on the plans as a deck could technically be considered a balcony because it’s accessed by living space on the same level and confirmed that it would be required to have safety railing.

In response to Commissioner Horwich’s inquiry, Planning Manager Lodan confirmed that the FAR of 0.529 listed in the staff report was correct.

The Commission recessed at 8:20 p.m (One hour and 15 minutes later...) Fire Marshal Kazandjian asked everyone to exit the room, so he could rearrange the chairs to provide more seating. The meeting reconvened at 8:35 p.m.

Commissioner Fauk asked that Mr. Yourngern be allowed to provide clarification regarding affected windows.

Mr. Youngern reported that two windows in his home would be affected by the project, one in the laundry room and one in the kitchen/family room, however he was not concerned about the window in the laundry room (how magnanimous).

At Commissioner Fauk’s request, Mr. Meyers confirmed that the transom windows would have sill heights of at least 6 feet.

MOTION: Commissioner Horwich moved to close the public hearing. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Weideman and passed by unanimous roll call vote.

MOTION: Commissioner Browning moved to deny PRE07-00013 without prejudice. (was there ever any doubt) The motion was seconded by Commissioner Weideman and passed by a 5-2 roll call vote with Commissioners Fauk and Gibson dissenting.

Commissioner Weideman stated that his vote was predicated on the fact that he believed the project would have an adverse impact on light and air and he still thought the FAR was too high even though the applicant had made great strides in reducing it.

Planning Manager Lodan noted that a resolution reflecting the Commission’s action would be brought back for approval at the next meeting. Chairperson Busch advised the applicant of his right to appeal the decision to the City Council.

The Commission briefly recessed to allow the room to clear.


There you have it - another 'fruitful' Hillside Ordinance meeting. Next on the agenda: Two other projects in other areas of Torrance that took approximately 5 minutes of the board's precious time.

But wait - another Hillside project is on the agenda... pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little...

...another 45 minutes - an hour ? later, a continuance is issued.

The meeting adjourned at 10:45pm.

A majority of the 3.5+ hours was spent on projects related to the Hillside Overlay. This is pretty typical when a Hillside project is on the Planning Commission agenda.

To quote the one lone voice of reason at this meeting "...the Hillside Overlay process tears neighborhoods apart..." In all fairness, having some control over rampant development is a good thing. Unfortunately, the rest of the city of Torrance doesn't enjoy the special privileges given to a select group of homeowners.

Yet, we're paying for it.


Anonymous said...

Pity the poor folks from the South Torrance area who came to tonight's (12/5/2007) Torrance Planning Commission meeting to oppose the construction of a new five-unit condominium project at the corner of Dalemead and January (near Crenshaw and PCH). The case didn't begin until after 10:00 p.m. They had four Hillside Overlay hearings that they had to listen to before their item was considered, and rightfully rejected.

PS: the Planning Commission adjourned at 11:00 p.m.

I have recently come across your blog and enjoy the fresh insights.

So Cal Peeper said...

The condo project was rejected? Or their concerns were rejected?

In all honesty, all Hillside discussion should come at the END of the meetings to spare everyone all that hot air.

Anonymous said...

The neighborhood fighting over development issues within the overlay zones is due to the Hillside Overlay being so poorly written and vague that nobody can accurately interpret what it means.
Even the Planning Commission and the City Council often disagree on how to interpret the overlay ordinance!
Everything about the ordinance and the destructive hearing process that it always invokes could be corrected if the elements of the overlay were precise and measurable.
In addition to ripping the community apart, the overlay hearings are costly to everyone involved, and a distraction from real issues that Torrance should be focused on.

So Cal Peeper said...

It is poorly written, poorly executed, poorly administrated, poorly understood. So, why do we have it again?

I'm of the belief if you give people this kind of power and control over their neighbors, they will take advantage of it, even if they are not remotely affected. And I'll guarantee the same people who argue over another neighbor's right to build will be the first person to whine when its their turn to go thru this gauntlet.

Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.

Anonymous said...

Now get this! The "Riviera HOA" Co-President has sued the city of Torrance for approving this particular development. Looks like the judge thinks the Overlay Ordinance is a steaming pile of excrement. Light, Air, and View are not constitutionally protected...

Mr. Younger's efforts to meddle in the affairs of others might end up causing the whole thing to be tossed out. Ha-Ha.

So Cal Peeper said...

I found an interesting website that lists the top taxpayers in Torrance. Mr. Youngern is #44 according to this site:

Perhaps he believes that being a taxpayer of such generosity (or is it notoriety), he's entitled to something.

I think it would be a good thing to have this ordinance dead and gone for good. How ironic it would be to have it buried by one of its most staunch supporters.

Anonymous said...

"Now get this! The "Riviera HOA" Co-President has sued the city of Torrance for approving this particular development. Looks like the judge thinks the Overlay Ordinance is a steaming pile of excrement. Light, Air, and View are not constitutionally protected...

Mr. Younger's efforts to meddle in the affairs of others might end up causing the whole thing to be tossed out. Ha-Ha.

March 30, 2009 11:38 AM"

Any word on the outcome and or any moves to erradicate the overlay?