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La Jolla committee proposes rule changes for remodels and basements

La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee trustees and others meet online Feb. 8.
La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee trustees and others meet online Feb. 8.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

After years of La Jolla planning groups lamenting abuses of the “50 percent rule,” the La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee has an idea for how to stop the proliferation of oversize houses.

The board regularly recommends changes to the city of San Diego’s land development code for consideration when the code is reviewed annually.

The 50 percent rule exempts a redevelopment project from needing a costly and time-consuming coastal development permit if it retains 50 percent of the original walls and thus is classified as a “remodel.” In an effort to deter abuses of that rule, the DPR is proposing a “50/50 rule.”

Under the proposed change, “a remodel cannot increase the livable floor area ratio [or FAR, the size of a structure in relation to its lot] by more than 50 percent, and you can only do such a remodel once every five years. And you still have to keep 50 percent of the original walls,” said DPR trustee Greg Jackson.

The board voted unanimously Feb. 8 to submit the proposal to the city.

La Jolla groups have been grappling for years with how to keep developers from abusing the 50 percent rule, often by tearing a structure down to the wall studs — and asserting that is abiding by the rule — and then building a large house in its place.

In 2015, a La Jolla Community Planning Association ad-hoc committee formed to address “mansionization” in La Jolla and draft possible new guidelines for developers in place of the 50 percent rule.

Despite multiple meetings and hearings over the following two years and a formal proposal, no alternative held sway with the city.

Since then, committees like DPR have drafted revisions and replacements for the 50 percent rule. The latest proposal will be submitted as part of the 2022 land development code update.

The board also drafted new guidelines on basements as part of its 2022 recommendations. But that was the subject of some debate.

“The current rule is that you only count [in the FAR] the part of the basement that is above ground, but basements that could be used as space should be counted by some percentage because it is underground,” Jackson said.

One suggestion was to count 50 percent of the basement’s square footage in the home’s overall square footage.

“We don’t see them, but they trigger the volume of what’s above it,” said trustee Angeles Leira, who advocated for the proposed change. “To me, that is the issue. Additionally, there have been cases where basements have taken on water, and that creates a problem for the street.”

Trustee Mike Costello disagreed, saying, “Basements are a painless way to add square footage that no one actually sees.” He added that a geotechnical report would identify any basements that are inappropriate for a certain area.

The board voted to recommend that a geotechnical report be required for projects with basements.

“This trend [of integrating large basements into home-build designs] is occurring mostly in the luxury property market, specifically on beachfront and hillside lots in the coastal zone,” the proposal states. “Unfortunately, many of these lots also have questionable soil, drainage and geological stability. Although project review may assess geotechnical suitability of proposed construction within the subject property lines, cumulative impact analysis of excessive soil exportation and shoring close to property lines on a neighborhood scale isn’t addressed.”

The board decided, however, not to recommend that basements be counted in a property’s overall FAR. ◆