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DPR drafts proposed code revisions and will submit to La Jolla Community Planning Association and San Diego

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

Concluding a conversation that started last year and continued over multiple meetings, the La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee last week drafted proposed changes to San Diego building code intended to clear up ambiguous language and address issues that often come up.

The committee will forward its findings to the La Jolla Community Planning Association and then the city of San Diego. In coming months, the city is slated to review the code for possible revision.

In introducing the idea to recommend changes to the code, DPR Chairman Brian Will said in November that “the code is flawed, and sometimes we have projects that comply with flawed code. So where does that leave us as a committee that is supposed to advise on these projects?”

Among the major issues are how height is measured and the contentious 50 percent rule.

Given there are multiple ways to measure height, Will said one suggestion is have the city edit the code to better explain that when multiple measurements can be used, the lowest or most restrictive one will constitute the maximum overall structure height.

Similarly, with the height limit in the coastal zone that permits 30 feet, plus no more than 10 feet for hillsides, DPR will recommend adding language that indicates applicable buildings shall be measured to the lower of the coastal height limit or zoning height limit.

“That doesn’t matter in 95 percent of La Jolla, but there are the few situations that allow up to 40 feet. There is a problematic loophole that has been brought up many times,” Will said. “Let’s use the tools we’ve already got.”

Further, Will said he sought clarity over the concept of “separation” of structures on a property. 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 just be the house.

City staff “explained how it’s measured, but the code doesn’t,” Will said. “The explanation I got that could serve as a code update is that underground structures, retaining walls under 5 feet in height, pergolas, swimming pools, terraces or similar, that are structurally independent, would not count in the six-foot separation measurement. A six-foot separation can be maintained even with these items.”

That caused concern for DPR trustee Angeles Leira. “I can see architects come around and really play with that,” she said. “The focus has to be on these things being underground, not visible so the buildings look separate. If we do not put additional caveats, people will abuse it.”

There currently is no definitive language on “structurally independent,” so the board suggested the city craft a definition and add it to the code, along with what constitutes a separation.

“We currently live in a world where someone might argue that a continuous parking garage under a building is separation. Another side of another project might argue that the existence of a sidewalk between two buildings means they are connected,” Will said. “Neither of those two extremes is right, but how do we zero in on reasonable clarification on the code?”

The board also is attempting to tighten a loophole in what is known as the 50 percent rule, through which a developer could bypass a coastal development permit if the project retains 50 percent of the original walls. (Some would strip a property down to the wall studs and assert that was abiding by the 50 percent rule.)

The board will recommend that a coastal development permit can still be bypassed if “50 percent of the walls remain exactly as it is currently handled by the city, with the additional limitation that you cannot add more than 50 percent of the existing square footage to the building, up to the [floor area ratio] limit,” Will said.

To address the concept of “serial permitting” in which developers apply for multiple permits for minor renovations and incrementally increase the size of a house, the board will recommend that permits cannot be applied for again for three years following final inspection of a project.

The La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee meets at 4 p.m. the second and third Tuesdays of each month. The next meeting is March 9. Learn more at lajollacpa.org. ◆