Group wants city to plug ‘McMansion’ loophole in La Jolla

Ad hoc committee mulling request for Los Angeles-style development moratorium

Next Residential Single-Family Zoning ‘McMansion’ meeting: 5:30-7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 24, La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St.

La Jollans concerned with what they consider oversized, boxy homes detracting from the character of their neighborhoods are hoping to take a page from the City of Los Angeles in their mission to curb the proliferation of “McMansions.”

During its July 27 meeting at La Jolla Rec Center, the La Jolla Community Planning Association’s (LJCPA) Ad Hoc Committee on Residential Single-Family Zoning discussed several strategies for putting the brakes on such development. After much discussion, the group decided to draft a letter for the LJCPA to review and forward to the mayor and the city’s Development Services Director, Robert Vacchi, imploring the city to place a moratorium on its 50 percent “categorical exemption,” which the group believes has led to the so-called “mansionization” of Bird Rock. Meanwhile, the group continues to solicit the participation of residents, city staff and the building industry to come to a mutually agreeable solution.

San Diego’s categorical exemption allows builders remodeling or adding onto homes in the coastal zone to bypass the city’s requirement for a coastal development permit — and accompanying community notification and review — in exchange for retaining at least 50 percent of a structure’s existing, exterior walls. The ad hoc committee says this exemption was intended for modest home additions and remodels, though it’s now being used as a workaround to fast-track demolition of existing homes to build new structures that are sometimes two to four times larger.

Los Angeles: We have a problem

In Los Angeles, public outcry over perceived mansionization was so pervasive that earlier this year the city imposed a moratorium on demolition and certain kinds of development in 15 neighborhoods. In March, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved the Neighborhood Conservation Interim Control Ordinance (ICO), which places a maximum two-year limit on the size of new, single-family dwellings that can be built in those neighborhoods.

“We’ve got a big problem, so much so that 15 ICOs (temporary moratoriums) have been proposed, which is something that I don’t think has ever been done,” said Shawn Bayliss, director of planning and land use for Fifth District Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz.

Although in 2008 Los Angeles passed a Baseline Mansionization Ordinance (BMO) to curb the trend, it did little to control the size and scale of residential development. “With the resurgence of the economy, we’ve just had complete neighborhoods decimated by these things,” Bayliss said.

He said the problem was exacerbated by “bonuses and exemptions” afforded to homeowners and builders under the BMO, similar to what is concurrently happening in La Jolla. In addition to San Diego’s 50 percent rule, further exemptions are allowed so that basements, covered porches and accessory structures tacked onto residential projects in La Jolla’s coastal zone are not counted as livable floor area (though some say these spaces are often converted to living spaces after the home is complete).

In Los Angeles, there is an established, maximum, residential floor-area ratio (FAR) of .5, Bayliss said (by comparison, the maximum established floor-area ratio for San Diego and La Jolla — excluding La Jolla Shores — is already greater, at .6).

Los Angeles’s BMO allows a homebuilder to get an additional 20 percent of square footage by doing one of three things: building to a specified environmental standard — “basically, already required through our green building standards,” Bayliss said; adding articulation to the front; or making the second story 25 percent smaller than the first story.

Other areas excluded from floor-area ratio calculations under the BMO include: the first 400 square feet of a garage; 250 square feet of covered breezeways, walkways and patios; and 400 square feet of pool houses, sheds or other accessory structures. “While that’s not living space, it’s bulk, it’s stuff,” Bayliss said. “All of a sudden you have 4,800 square feet of stuff on this 6,400-square-foot lot (and an FAR of .75). When I go out in my backyard, I’m now looking up at a two-and-a-half-story wall, complete with windows and balconies overlooking my backyard — six feet away from my property line — and there’s some extreme examples of … what a lot of people refer to as a Kleenex box.”

Bird Rock’s big bad developer?

Nearly all of the projects that La Jolla’s residential zoning ad hoc committee have cited as examples of mansionization in north Pacific Beach, Bird Rock and La Jolla have been developed by two companies: Tourmaline Properties and Pump House Builders, each owned by Bird Rock resident Ben Ryan (see photos on A6 and A8).

UC San Diego professor and Bird Rock resident Anne Wallace said she and her husband bought a small home in Bird Rock in 1995, which they later rebuilt, “staying with the original style, including redwood trim and a craftsman flavor. It’s still a quaint small house — 2,000 square feet — (where) we have raised our sons,” she said.

Although the ad hoc committee admits the categorical exemption and additional exclusions follow the letter of current San Diego Land Development Code, Wallace and others contend Ryan’s projects “defy everything that has made our neighborhood flourish.

“My biggest concern isn’t the track home, oversized, cosmetically unappealing nature of his houses,” she said. “My biggest worry is that he is deliberately seeking out owners often before they even put their homes on the market, knocking on doors of some of our elderly ... and thus buying up the market. He then puts $400,000 into it and sells what would’ve been affordable to a young couple for close to $2 million, which is now not affordable to a couple like my husband and I would’ve been. … I truly believe this is interfering with the free market and will change the entire social structure of our neighborhood.”

Ryan, whose company, Tourmaline Properties, San Diego Business Journal rated one of the “100 Fastest Growing Private Companies of 2015,” reached out to La Jolla Light late last month in response to the ad hoc committee’s concerns with his projects.

“Tourmaline Properties and Tourmaline Construction are our two primary companies,” said Ryan, who is president of both. “Tourmaline Properties is the vehicle that buys loans for properties and sells them when we’re done and contracts to our affiliated company, Tourmaline Construction, which builds primarily for Tourmaline Properties. ...

“We’re not using any loopholes and we’re not gaming the system,” said Ryan, a retired Navy SEAL who has four children attending La Jolla schools and maintains he is “very invested” in the community.

“We’re using what the City of San Diego put in place to offer relief from the burden of the cost and time of going through a coastal development permit. It’s an expensive and a time-consuming process. … There’s more reviews and more material that’s required (in La Jolla). It’s a quicker process in other areas.”

Ryan said the “vast majority” of residents and neighbors in the area where he is building have reacted positively to his projects. He said the people who purchase his houses are generally families that need more space.

“When we’re in the design stages of a house, we generally are designing it for a family and for them to have room — and that’s what there is demand for. A lot of families wouldn’t be able to move into a 1,000-square-foot house,” he said.

Ryan said he doesn’t believe the loss of “really small houses built in the 1940s and ’50s” is deconstructing the fabric of La Jolla.

“The urban landscape is in a continual state of change, and I don’t feel that change is inherently bad,” he said, noting that his projects and related city fees boost the economy and help fund local schools.

“The changes we impart to the community are, by and large, very positive. Generally, the houses we’re replacing are small and in very poor condition. They’ve reached the end of their useful (lives) as structures. I can’t think of an instance where we’ve built and then seen property values drop.”

Although the city did not respond by press time when asked how many residential projects were approved last year using the categorical exemption, Ryan said the majority of the homes built or remodeled in Bird Rock are done using this provision. “That’s simply because you can add up to 12 months to a job and then tens of thousands of dollars in additional consultant fees,” seeking a coastal development permit, he said, noting he believes removing or modifying the categorical exemption would have a “very strong, negative impact on home values in our community.

“Any limitation you place on the ability of people to remodel in accordance with the code is going to have a negative impact on values. It makes it more difficult to remodel your house and it puts limitations and restrictions on what you’re able to do,” he said. “It makes it more expensive for people to remodel and ultimately it will drive people away from the coastal development review process.”

La Jolla can count its blessings?

Unlike La Jolla, in the majority of its neighborhoods, the city of Los Angeles does not require developers to notify the public about their projects, or have the community design review La Jolla does, despite many citizens “clamoring for it,” Bayliss said.

“A lot of people get skittish when you talk about architectural review — committees put together to tell you how your house should look, or could look,” he said. “It’s a completely predictable scenario. The more pressure, the more difficult you make it to build, the more pressure there is to try to figure out a way around it. … We have found that you can get mired in the weeds with that kind of stuff. We’re just so darn big that it’s better for us to codify the rules: here are the rules — and either you (follow them) or you don’t.”

The ad hoc committee says part of the problem in La Jolla is a misalignment between city code and the La Jolla Community Plan, the latter of which calls for reasonable transitions between old and new development and defines community character and scale. It can be interpreted subjectively, where the city’s Land Development Code involves hard numbers the city can easily confirm and enforce.

“It’s those hard numbers that are important for the community to come up with and agree to … because that’s what (city) staff can implement easily,” said ad hoc committee member Angeles Liera during the group’s July 27 meeting.

Liera said a moratorium on the categorical exclusion might be the only way to coerce the building industry to the table for collaborative discussions on reform. (Ryan, who has not yet attended an ad hoc committee meeting, said he questions how productive the discussions would be.)

Deja Vu?

Bird Rock previously identified a trend with oversized development in conflict with the La Jolla Community Plan.

About a decade ago, some residents met with the city to express frustration over the issue, recalled LJCPA board member Joe LaCava.

“The city suggested that a solution was to modify the generic zoning to make allowances to reflect the La Jolla Community Plan,” he said, however noting that “the idea was rejected locally at the time, thinking that it would be too hard to carve out the zoning to reflect the community plan.”

The ad hoc committee is reaching out to planning groups in other coastal areas such as Ocean Beach, Point Loma and Pacific Beach, to see if they have similar issues, and in North Park, where its committee is also seeking a stay on development while the city considers updating its community plan to address the problem. Some North Park residents say developers are pushing the limits of existing city code to build condos that are too tall, bulky and out of character with the neighborhood (read more at

Architect Michael Morton, of Marengo Morton Architects, who attended the July 27 ad hoc meeting, suggested the committee obtain a list of all homes built or remodeled using the categorical exemption to determine if it is being abused systemically, or if these are isolated instances.

“There’s a lot of use of the categorical exemption that nobody has any problem with,” he said. “There are some exceptions, but it’s up to your committee to do that research before you jump to a conclusion without any basis for that conclusion.”

A petition posted by a Bird Rock resident hoping to gain support for tighter residential development regulations can be found at

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