Building height issues trigger city investigation of one La Jolla project and stall another

A photo shows what La Jolla architect Phil Merten calls potential construction violations at a house on Via Casa Alta.
A photo provided by La Jolla architect Phil Merten shows what he calls potential construction violations at a house on Via Casa Alta.

A city investigation is underway of a property in La Jolla’s Country Club area where construction was reported to be above the allowable height for the area.

The home development on Via Casa Alta is one of two La Jolla properties where possible violations have been raised, and some in the community are concerned about the broader precedent that could be set with such projects.

Representatives of the properties could not immediately be reached for comment.

The project on Via Casa Alta, which reportedly has been built to 74 feet on a hillside where 40 feet is permitted, is being investigated over a possible height violation and unpermitted work to the pool and deck.

According to a complaint registered with the city, “the new pool and deck being constructed is different than the one shown to the neighbor at the time of permitting and now blocking our view. It seems that the new pool and the deck has been pushed out toward the canyon illegally and causing disturbance of environmental resources and blocking the neighbor. ... Also, there is a possible height violation of 40 feet maximum plus a viewing deck and a bar that was not part of the original approved plan.”

City spokesman Scott Robinson said an investigation is underway but that he could not comment further.

La Jolla architect Phil Merten brought the development to the attention of the La Jolla Community Planning Association and asked that it take an active role in making sure the project is brought into compliance.

LJCPA President Diane Kane declined to comment to the La Jolla Light.

How this can happen

Merten told the Light that the project received a coastal development permit more than a decade ago. “But after construction started, the permit was amended for additions behind the house, which allowed the house to exceed the overall structure height,” he said. “None of the [amendments] went before the LJCPA. The [La Jolla Planned District] ordinance is clear that when the city is to make a substantial conformance review for the Coastal Zone, they are obligated to inform the community so they can chime in.”

Gary Geiler, deputy director of the city Development Services Department, said plans can change after they are approved by a local community planning group and that the department decides through a substantial conformance review whether a project can proceed when revised or needs to go back to the local planning group.

“Construction documents may have minor changes from their conceptual discretionary approval [by local planning groups],” he said. “The plan check process determines if the plans are in substantial conformance. An applicant can elect to submit for a formal substantial conformance review ... or be directed by staff to submit for an SCR.”

Hillside happening

In addition to the Via Casa Alta property, Merten said he discovered a development on Hillside Drive that was being built above allowable height.

Merten said he alerted the city about it more than a year ago and that the contractor was instructed to stop work until new plans could be approved. The partially completed project has sat stagnant since the notice was issued.

Robinson said city inspectors are “working with the property owner to correct the building height issue” and that “all permitted projects will need to be constructed as specified in the approved plan sets and need to comply with all state, federal and local requirements, including height restrictions.”

Long-term concerns

Perhaps more concerning to Merten than the individual projects is the possible long-term effect for La Jolla.

“It seems to me, when the city does not enforce its regulations, it establishes a de facto precedent for future projects to ignore the regulations,” Merten said. “La Jolla’s hillsides are what make La Jolla special in the city. The La Jolla Community Plan encourages them to remain open, and when the city put a 40-foot height limit on sloping lots, it in effect puts a limit on how far a house can extend down or up a hillside, which leaves the remaining lot undeveloped. If this goes unenforced and more of these projects get approved, it compromises the open areas on our hillsides.”

He said he would like both projects to return to LJCPA for review and violations to be corrected.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for the community and for the owners of these sites that may have to correct them and the one on Hillside sitting idle for a year,” Merten said. “Had the city sent them back to LJCPA, they would have alerted them to the issues.” ◆