La Jollans propose paradigm change for new construction

A group of La Jollans called Citizens for Responsible Coastal Development (CRCD) are proposing a new era for construction projects in La Jolla. Their proposal, which is now being distributed among community groups, has the potential to change the way new building projects are done in the Coastal Zone and solve the problems contractors and neighbors have been complaining about for years — if it garners enough support locally and, eventually, from the San Diego City Council.

The proposed Coastal Development Permit (CDP) exemption, which pertains to coastal single-family residential areas within the La Jolla Community Plan, offers a “fair, predictable and cost-effective review process” based on an incentive system that rewards good design practices with extra square meters for over-the-counter building permits.

In July 2015, an ad-hoc subcommittee formed out of La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) determined to end the “mansionization” of La Jolla, namely the building of houses that are out-of-character and too big for their neighborhoods. Before it disbanded in February 2016, and started proceeding as CRCD (without the constraints of the Brown Act), members found their enemy had a nickname, the “50 percent rule.”

In the San Diego Municipal Code, the 50 percent rule is defined in article 126.0704, “Exemptions from a Coastal Development Permit,” as: “The demolition or removal of 50 percent or more of the exterior walls of the existing structure.” This, according to CRCD member Diane Kane means, “If you are keeping at least 50 percent of the exterior walls at an existing home, you don’t need a CDP.”

For Kane, the problem came when developers started interpreting the rule in more “liberal” ways. “Since the coastal zone was enacted in the 1970s, what we call the 50 percent rule has turned into complete tear downs where people are keeping two walls of studs, and they’re building completely around it with entirely new homes. So the reality is almost nobody is going for a CDP.”

The number of projects the community group overseeing most of La Jolla’s development permits (Development Permit Review committee) reviews has sunk in the past few years. As La Jolla Light previously reported, in 2015 the committee reviewed a record number of projects (36), five more than the year before (31) and since has been declining, with 22 project in 2016 and so far in 2017 three projects have come forward for review, one of them being an application to convert existing dwelling units into condominiums.

Developer Tim Golba, who has collaborated with CRCD on the proposal, articulates a different point of view. In his experience, the cost of a CDP has risen from $10,000 to $12,000 (10 years ago) to $30,000 to $50,000 today for a single-family residency, factoring in fees, consultants and other costs associated with supplying the information and complying with the requirements.

“From my clients’ perspectives, they see (a CDP) as a major impediment to move forward, so they look for exception criteria to avoid it. The current system the City has, and it’s been on the books for a long time, is the 50 percent rule,” he told the Light.

Golba admits to having used the 50 percent rule many times but, in his words, the exemption is “ripe for abuse.” One of the ways the rule is abused, he explains, consists of completing a total teardown in two or three 50 percent remodels, keeping half the walls each time. But, for him, the worst part of the current exemption, is the lack of options for good design.

“There are design principals you want to employ, but you’re handcuffed by this crazy set of rules from the City. And that’s the most frustrating part, because almost every client wants to desperately avoid what’s becoming a more costly process, which is financially crippling to a lot of clients. It’s time to find something that’s better,” Golba concluded.

A long-awaited solution

The proposal, named “Incentive-based zoning for coastal development,” suggests giving “over-the-counter” permits to all developments in the coastal, single-family zone under 0.4 Floor Area Ratio (FAR). The FAR shows the relationship between the constructed square footage and the size of the lot. (The allowable FAR for most of La Jolla is 0.6.)

But that’s a tricky thing, too, Kane says. “The other problem is the definition of what goes into the FAR is incredibly liberal, people have learned how to work around it.” Features such as underground basements, roofs or patio decks, storage units, porches, balconies and carports are currently not taken into consideration when calculating the FAR.

The proposal requires a more conservative definition of FAR, including “all built portions of a structure.” Projects that, abiding by this definition have a calculated FAR under 0.4 and comply with an 11-point list of base conditions, can obtain ministerial, over-the-counter permits, avoiding the CDP process. The check list includes elements such as setbacks, height, mature trees, landscaping, public views and grading. “(If you comply with that) you can do whatever you want. Go to the counter, stamp your plans, and you’re out of there. No CDP, no problema,” Kane said.

“If you want to get up to 0.6 FAR, there’s some additional things you need to do,” Kane added, referring to the incentive-based system included in the proposal. For example, if the design is for a single-story house, you automatically earn 0.1 FAR to add to your structure. Other design practices, such as breaking up the building mass, setting back the second story from the first or placing a roof deck in the center of the design, allow for extra FAR points up to 0.6.

For CRCD chair Sharon Wampler, this approach is a “win-win-win, because 1) people are not going to have to work around the 50 percent rule, the builders and homeowners will save money, and they can build what they want as long as it’s in context and respectful to the community; 2) the neighbors won’t freak as much because there’s going to be a context, now they won’t wake up one day and have a 30-foot wall right next to their yard; and 3) the City will have an easier time and won’t have any complaints.”

Group members have met with District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry, who has offered her support. Bry told the Light, “Preserving the unique character of our single-family residential neighborhoods is one of my priorities as Council member. I want to make sure that there is a fair and transparent review process that addresses community concerns and also respects the rights of property owners.”

In the following weeks, community planning committees and subcommittees will discuss the proposal during regular meetings. CRCD will try to garner their support before presenting the plan to the San Diego City Council.

You can find community group agendas at bit.ly/LaJollaAgendas

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