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La Jollans make progress on suggested changes to city code to tackle project noticing and height measurement

A larger-than-standard notice of application describes plans to vacate part of Cuvier Street in La Jolla.
A larger-than-standard notice of application, part of a new effort to better inform the public of projects, describes plans to vacate part of Cuvier Street in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After years of disagreements over code interpretation among local planning groups, project applicants and the city of San Diego, some elements of housing development may get a little more refined after La Jolla volunteers’ suggested code changes were accepted to move forward with the city.

As part of the city’s annual update to the Land Development Code — which contains regulations for development and use of property, including zoning, subdivisions and other related land use — representatives of La Jolla’s planning groups recommended changes to the parts that discuss residential height measurement and project noticing.

The city considered the recommendations over two workshops in July. Three suggestions got staff support to move forward to the Planning Commission and the City Council, according to La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane. By simply moving forward, this year’s effort is the furthest the local planning group has gotten in recent years.

Last year, the city created an online portal for recommending changes to the Land Development Code. The portal provides a place for residents to suggest edits to the code line by line.

“Before, we would say, ‘Here are the problems with the code and how can they be fixed,’” Kane said. “Now the city asks for what area of the code is the problem and what change we recommend. But we are not code writers.”

Throughout the past year, LJCPA subcommittees and working groups got together to discuss changes they could propose.

One of them, project noticing, has been an issue for La Jollans for years.

“The city wasn’t communicating, just providing notice that was in legalese,” Kane said.

In May 2020, the La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee started to tackle the issue.

The San Diego Development Services Department is required to let residents within 300 feet of a construction project know that it is planned, but the notices often are lost or thrown away.

One reason is that they are trifolded sheets of paper sent through the mail and addressed to “occupant” or “property owner,” with a return address of “city of San Diego,” so they can be mistaken for junk mail. Another is that they are sent months — or even years — in advance, so residents sometimes forget about the project.

The notices are either a notice of application, which includes details of the proposed project and goes to anyone in a 300-foot radius, or a notice of future decision, in which residents are informed that the Development Services Department could make a decision about the project either with or without a public hearing.

Though a notice of future decision states there may be local project review, it does not say when or where.

In April this year, the city tried a new form of noticing for the planned vacation of part of Cuvier Street to facilitate renovation of the La Jolla Recreation Center. It went beyond the typical 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper posted somewhere onsite. Instead, a 3-by-4-foot sign was posted, noticeable from a car and readable from the sidewalk.

It’s an enlarged version of a notice of application, indicating that an application has been filed for the Cuvier Street proposal and that a decision on whether to vacate the street will be made at a public hearing. It also includes whom people can contact about when the project will be heard locally and more.

Having seen the larger notice, one of the La Jolla representatives’ recommended changes to the code would require applicants to “post a large sign on the site … including a project rendering, basic project data and a link to view the complete set of plans.”

For issues that pertain to height limits, Kane said there is open interpretation of the current code, which “encourages gaming the system.” One issue is how the 30-foot building height limit established in the city’s coastal zone by the 1972 passage of Proposition D is measured. The other is how separation of structures plays into overall measurement.

The La Jollans recommended a change in which “the coastal Prop. D height limit shall be measured from the lower of existing or proposed grade.”

For separation of structures, which the DPR Committee has been working on since November, the recommended code change would help clarify the term “structure.”

The issue is that 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 to calculate overall height and make sure it complies with local limits. However, if they are separate, the measurement would just be the house.

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

The suggested code change reads: “Structures would be defined in this section only as structurally independent structures in excess of [6 feet] high. Additionally adjacent structures shall not constitute a ‘structure’ for purposes of structure separation: underground structures, retaining walls, fences, trellises, swimming pools, exterior stairs and at-grade patios and terraces.”

In coming up with the wording, Kane said DPR members worked with city staff members who she said were “really five-star” in that they “are knowledgeable and responsive and understand the staff perspective and the public perspective.”

Kane said there were no objections to their suggested code changes from city staff or others at the workshops. “Staff understood what we wanted and put in what we wanted,” she said.

She hopes the changes will clear up issues that tend to affect La Jolla. “We want to be a director for change rather than a victim of it,” she said.

Once the city receives all the feedback for all areas of the code to be updated, the recommended changes will be submitted to the Planning Commission and the City Council for additional public feedback and adoption. ◆

Updates

2:28 p.m. Aug. 31, 2021: This article was updated to state that three suggestions from La Jolla got city staff support to move forward, clarifying that not all suggestions did.