Committee forms to address La Jolla ‘McMansion’ issue

La Jolla Community Planners get an earful over cell tower issue

Bird Rock residents Sharon Wampler and Dana Williams are continuing their fight to halt what they view as a proliferation of new and unwieldy residential development in their neighborhood, often referred to by opponents as “McMansions.”

Following their presentations last year to the Bird Rock Community Council and Development Permit Review committee, Wampler and Williams addressed the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) during its May 7 meeting at La Jolla Rec Center.

A provision in San Diego’s Land Development Code exempts some developers seeking approval for home additions or remodels near the coast from obtaining a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) — thus allowing them to bypass the accompanying discretionary review process, which includes presenting plans to the LJCPA and its subcommittees.

Developers are often granted this “categorical exemption” from a CDP under the city’s existing “50 percent rule” and issued an over-the-counter (ministerial) permit — which requires no vetting by the community — as long as the new development retains at least 50 percent of a home’s existing walls.

Wampler and Williams say the Land Development Code needs to be revised to prevent what they consider abuse of the 50 percent rule by investors and “home flippers.” Although the original intent of the exemption was to help people complete home additions or renovations that wouldn’t substantially impact the coast, they say it is now being used to build entirely new structures that are more than three times the size of the previous homes.

“Some developers are making a business out of this and really damaging the unique character of the neighborhoods,” Wampler said.

Opponents of “mansionization” contend their problem is not with the size of a structure, but with the size of a structure relative to its lot and surrounding homes.

“Instead of just slightly remodeling, essentially they use the 50 percent categorical exemption to level the property and build what Los Angeles has termed ‘McMansions,’ ” Williams said. “Something has got to be done.”

Wampler said a handful of homes built recently in Bird Rock using the 50 percent rule fly in the face of the La Jolla Community Plan. First adopted in 1967 and last updated in 2004, it proposes goals and guidelines for development in La Jolla, including limits on a structure’s bulk and scale. However, when disputes arise, the city’s Land Development Code prevails.

“(The La Jolla Community Plan) carries no weight because the city’s ultimate responsibility is just to enforce the code,” Wampler said. “There’s a misalignment between the existing regulations and the community plans of coastal communities, such as La Jolla, Point Loma and Pacific Beach.”

In March, the Los Angeles City Council placed a two-year restriction on the size of new, single-family dwellings in 15 residential neighborhoods, and a temporary moratorium on all demolition and development permits in five neighborhoods that have a large number of older Craftsman houses and Spanish-style bungalows.

“The Los Angeles City Council realized the problem really lies with the codes and the regulations … so they voted unanimously to (temporarily) cease builds to give them the time to review the ordinances and make the necessary code changes,” Wampler said. “They realized if it was left unabated, it would just continue.”

Another problem, Wampler said, is that the City of San Diego doesn’t count terraces, carports and garages when calculating floor-area ratios (FARs) — or the size of a structure relative to its lot, a calculation used to control density.

Wampler and Williams asked the LJCPA to form a committee to help them suggest relevant revisions to the city’s Land Development Code. They are also suggesting the city: halt permits for home flippers and investors until codes are revised and there is oversight to manage such development; exclude investors and home flippers from utilizing the 50 percent rule; require larger setbacks from property lines; include garages and carports in FAR calculations; and ensure development is compatible with homes in the immediate area.

Years ago, community members asked the city to incorporate the La Jolla Community Plan into the Land Development Code so that zoning for residential properties would be La Jolla-specific, Wampler noted, urging the LJCPA to again make such a request.

LJCPA President Joe LaCava recommended trustees form a committee to work with Wampler and Williams to address the issue.

To effect any change, LaCava said the committee must show the city’s Development Services Department that there is “a consensus in the community, or at least no opposition, to give them political cover to make the change — which some could perceive to reduce property values.

“Some people will be very defensive about some of these ideas,” he cautioned.

A motion passed by a vote of 14-0-2 to form the committee, which will: recommend changes in the city’s Land Development Code to revise the use of categorical exemption in single-family residential remodels and make code changes that address bulk and scale issues and make single-family residential remodels and new construction more closely aligned with the La Jolla Community Plan.

LJCPA member Don Schmidt said a similar “10 percent” exemption for residential development between the coast and first street or roadway is problematic and should be addressed, while trustee Dolores Donovan suggested the group take on increasingly large development in La Jolla Shores due to that community’s absence of established FARs — which LaCava said would be too much for the group to tackle and should each be addressed separately.

— In other LJCPA News —

• Cell phone towers: Mt. Soledad area resident David Haney noted that the city is allowing cellular communications providers to install mini cell phone towers (Distributed Antenna Systems, or DAS) on light posts in residential neighborhoods without first seeking community input. A DAS was recently installed in front of his home, at the junction of Westknoll Drive and Calle Vaquero.

“It appears the city has gone on a binge installing mini cell phone towers in residential neighborhoods, right next to homes,” he said, adding that he feels the installations will decrease property values. Although Haney maintained the California Public Utilities Commission requires the city to respond to complaints about cell tower installations, he said he received “the royal runaround” from City Hall.

“The city will not answer any questions, except to say that it’s a Process 1 (over-the-counter) permit,” Haney said. “This means that they don’t have to get homeowner feedback, nor do they even tell you about it.”

Questioned about the installation near Haney’s home in March, a spokesperson for San Diego’s Development Services Department told La Jolla Light that Crown Castle GT Company (which provides mobile phone coverage for Verizon, AT&T, and other wireless communications providers) has an agreement with the city’s Real Estate Assets Department to install antennas on street lights throughout the city that are less than 24 inches tall and exempt from wireless communication facility permit regulations of the Land Development Code.

“It appears the city has made a deal with Crown Castle and Verizon and they’re taking advantage of the lack of regulations — federal, state, county or city,” Haney said. “These mini-cell phone towers are banned in many places. Public comment is required in many places, and most places, such as Encinitas, have a reasonable setback contingency.”

LaCava, who later confirmed he is registered with the city as a lobbyist representing Crown Castle GT Company (albeit for “a very specific purpose unrelated to DAS installations,” he told the Light) said San Diego was “actually a little slow to approve DAS technology.

“They were actually the solution that a lot of neighborhoods were asking for in lieu of the larger antennas that they found more offensive and thought were more potentially harmful,” he said. “It was a compromise to get good cell coverage in the neighborhoods.”

LaCava said the city will continue to issue process 1 permits for DAS installations sans community input.

• Cellular ordinance questioned: On a related note, LJCPA trustee David Little said he was among residents asked by the Development Services Department to provide feedback on a new cellular communications ordinance known as the Spectrum Act (aka the “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012”). It states that, per federal law, wireless antennas can exceed La Jolla’s 30-foot height limit on coastal development, as well as established “setbacks and the whole works,” Little said, noting that several of its proposed amendments to the city’s Land Development Code troubled him, including a provision that cell antennas be approved via Process I permits, “which means, among other things, that community groups and neighbors would never be notified — the antenna would just appear,” he said.

“I served on several committees where concerned citizens … were able get an antenna (moved to) an alternate site or make other cosmetic changes,” Little said, via e-mail. “It appears carrier companies have gotten someone in the federal government to say they need not inform the community anymore and can do as they please. This is done under the inauspicious guise of ‘creating jobs,’ and I am told that indeed the (federal government) can override local zoning code.”

LaCava, who chairs the San Diego Community Planners Committee (CPC) — the umbrella organization overseeing the city’s 42 planning groups, including the LJCPA — said the CPC was also asked to consider the code amendment.

“It essentially says that if there’s an existing antenna, they can widen it up to about six feet under a Process 1 (no community review), extend it an additional 10 feet in height if it’s in the public right-of-way and an additional 20 feet if it’s on private property,” LaCava said. “That does mean that it overrides the coastal height limit.”

• Tasende nixes restaurant plans: LaCava noted that, based on a deluge of public opposition, the owner of Tasende Gallery on Prospect Street is rescinding plans to add a restaurant to the second story of his building.

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