Cleaning up the code? La Jolla DPR Committee to recommend changes to city building rules

A graphic outlines the three ways in which the height of a building can be measured in the coastal zone.

The La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee dedicated more than an hour and a half of its Nov. 17 meeting to a discussion of building heights, spurred by a recent development project that put focus on just how confusing the current code can be to some.

But facing no pressing action, the board members decided to coalesce their thoughts into something refined and present it to the La Jolla Community Planning Association early in the new year and to the city of San Diego after that.

In early 2021, the city will collect comments for proposed revisions to the building code, and DPR members are happy to oblige.

“The code is flawed, and sometimes we have projects that comply with flawed code,” DPR Chairman Brian Will said. “So where does that leave us as a committee that is supposed to advise on these projects?”

He said there are three ways that heights are measured in the coastal zone: “We have what is affectionately referred to as the ‘blanket’ or the ‘tarp’ method, through which we lay a blanket over the lower or proposed grade and lift it 30 feet … and at no point can you violate that height. The second is the overall structure height, which is measured from the lowest point within a 5-foot perimeter of the building. The third is the Prop. D height limit which is … measured from proposed grade only.”

Further, there are stipulations in the code for hillsides in the coastal zones that permit 30 feet plus no more than 10 feet.

Confusion can come with the different ways in which height is measured, how it is presented and how it is interpreted by the city, Will added. “I think it is poorly explained in the code. … Anything that leaves us wondering or folks disagree means it is not spelled out enough.”

La Jolla DPR Committee trustees, architects and attorneys weigh in on how city building code could be clarified.
La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee trustees, architects and attorneys weigh in on how city building code could be clarified.

“The goal of today’s discussion is to see if we need trustee and committee education and what that might look like, or whether we should put together a list of requests for the city for changes or clarifications,” he said.

Trustee Angeles Liera quickly said she favored the latter.

One concern is the concept of “separation” when it comes to structures on a property. For example, in a residential project, if structures are connected, they must be measured from the lowest point of the lowest structure to the highest point of the house. However, if they are separate, the measurement would be just the house.

“For decades, the city has determined [that] when structures are not separated by six feet, they are indeed linked for computation of overall structure height,” said architect Phil Merten.

But some have taken to creating underground structures to separate some features from the house, along with other ways to get around that regulation.

Further, a city bulletin or “technical memo” is given to applicants that outlines code that must be followed — but not all the codes.

Attorney Rebecca Goodman said the bulletin does not “cross-reference with other applicable code sections, so it leaves the impression, or could leave the impression, that one measurement scheme is all that one would need to comply with; if it meets that, you’re good to go.”

She said all applicable codes would need to be followed, and that often means the most restrictive form of measurement would be the guideline.

She recommended a “few quick fixes,” such as wording the memo so it cross-references other applicable codes.

Trustee Greg Jackson said that by simply adding hyperlinks to the online document, no text would need to change, but other information would be connected and information would be effectively cross-referenced.

“I think the likelihood of us getting broad, widespread changes in our lifetime is pretty small,” Jackson said. “Although I would love to see it, it is not going to happen. We need to focus on what we can fix.”

Following the meeting, La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane explained that the discussion was prompted by the “contentious review” of a development at 7342 Remley Place.

Residents turned out en masse for the La Jolla Community Planning Association’s discussion of a home redevelopment project on Remley Place, a short street with only 10 houses on it.

“It met all the height-limit requirements but created a lot of misunderstanding and ill will,” she said. “As CPA president, I am tired of constant arguing over the intent and application of ambiguous/unclear code language about how height limits are measured in the coastal zone.”

Although it didn’t vote, the DPR board created a short list of suggestions intended to clarify the city code and memos that go to developers and applicants. Items include cross references to all applicable codes, clarification on what constitutes separation of structures and inclusion of all coastal height regulations. It will vote on it at a future meeting.

La Jolla’s Development Permit Review Committee next meets (pending items to review) at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8, online. Learn more at ◆