‘McMansion’ group hopes to improve home rebuild process


Group seeking input, participation of La Jolla homeowners, architects and developers

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A newly formed committee hoping to slow what some La Jollans feel is a proliferation of maximum-sized, cookie-cutter homes that detract from the character of La Jolla neighborhoods held its first meeting July 1 at La Jolla Library.

About 40 people attended La Jolla Community Planning Association’s (LJCPA) Ad Hoc Committee on Residential Single-Family Zoning. The group believes provisions of San Diego’s development approval process for residential home additions and remodels are not being used as originally intended, but as a workaround to build the largest possible home on a lot — a planning issue commonly referred to as “mansionization.”

Members of the ad hoc committee include: Bird Rock resident Sharon Wampler, who brought the mansionization issue to the attention of the LJCPA and its Development Permit Review (DPR) subcommittee late last year (more at and who was appointed ad hoc committee chair during the July 1 meeting; La Jollans Angeles Liera and Diane Kane, former City of San Diego planners who currently serve on the DPR committee; and architect Eric Lindebak a principal with the firm of Safdie Rabines, who said he shares the group’s concern with the way development is occurring in San Diego’s neighborhoods. (Other members of the committee who were not able to attend include LJCPA trustee Jim Ragsdale and attorney Glen Rasmussen).

Of particular concern to the group is the city’s 50 percent rule (referred to by some as the 51 percent rule). It allows the owners of homes near the coast seeking a renovation or addition “categorical exemption” from obtaining a coastal development permit and from participating in the community review process — if the project retains more than 50 percent of the house’s existing walls. The applicant may then obtain an over-the-counter (ministerial) permit, which does not allow the community to review the project and offer feedback.

“Categorical exemptions have unintended outcomes,” Liera said. “I have seen (La Jolla) change — some things for the best; some things for the worst … (but) those categorical exemptions were designed for modest additions … (someone who) wanted to add a room to a house. They were not designed for tearing down the house and building another house that is four or even five times bigger than the original house.”

Liera said another concern is how the city calculates floor-area ratio (FAR), or the size of a structure relative to the size of its lot. FAR is used to manage density in residential and commercial development. FAR calculations often exclude areas such as partially submerged basements, patios, garages or carports, which can increase a project’s bulk and scale.

Liera said FAR calculations are generally created for flat lots, and not La Jolla’s copious sloped, hillside lots.

Effecting change at City Hall

Having both been involved in the planning process as city employees, Kane and Liera underscored the importance of adhering to the city’s process, and of obtaining community consensus. As such, the ad hoc committee is inviting La Jolla residents and those involved in the building industry to participate in any discussions about possible changes to current zoning or the La Jolla Community Plan.

“We want to hear all sides of the issue,” Wampler stressed. “The goal of this is not anti-development and anti-progress, but to have thoughtful planning moving forward, and to consider reconciling zoning regulations with the La Jolla Community Plan.”

Liera said after the committee identifies the problem and possible solutions, it must initiate ‘intensive discussions with city staff” to help the city understand what it sees as the problem, and any code or community plan changes suggested by the committee. “They can be very helpful getting us to fit it in the right place,” Liera said, noting that any approved changes would likely take nine months — “and that’s the absolute minimum.”

In attendance and taking note of the group’s concerns were San Diego Planning Commission Chair Tim Golba and Barbara Bry and Joe LaCava, both of whom are running to replace Sherri Lightner next year on the San Diego City Council (LaCava is also second vice-president of the LJCPA and chair of its overarching La Jolla Community Planners Committee). Invited but not in attendance were a representative from Lightner’s office; Karen Bucey, a city Senior Planner for La Jolla; and Ben Ryan, president of Tourmaline Properties, which Wampler and fellow Bird Rock resident Dana Williams consider one of the most flagrant developers of large, boxy “McMansion” houses in Bird Rock and La Jolla.

Williams said the issue came to her attention when Tourmaline Properties tore down an older house next door to her two years ago, and rebuilt a much larger one, utilizing the 50 percent rule.

“We have done some research and, using the categorical exemption, they’ve bought, remodeled and flipped, or are in the process of flipping, close to 19 houses in San Diego in the past two years, that we’re aware of — eight of which have been in Bird Rock,” Williams said, adding that she believes the 50 percent rule should only be offered to “long-term homeowners who are (seeking) a legitimate addition,” and not to developers or home flippers.

However, both LaCava and Kane noted that the city views each applicant, whether a homeowner or developer, equally. The most efficient way to effect a desired change is to seek amendments or revisions to current zoning or the La Jolla Community Plan, they advised.

Bird Rock resident Kevin Gordon said he is concerned that developers using the 50 percent exemption are showing building inspectors one thing, and then tearing down walls or building new ones in front of old ones after the inspectors leave. “When they leave, what they (saw) goes out and something else gets built over it. So, it’s really an enforcement issue as much as it is something else,” Gordon said, adding he believes a city building inspector or code enforcement officer should be invited to participate in ad hoc committee discussions.

LaCava noted that via the city’s OpenDSD website ( residents can find out who the building inspector is and contact them if they believe there are problems with residential development. “Usually they’re pretty responsive,” LaCava said. “The inspectors are well staffed; code enforcement is not.”

A Taft Avenue (Bird Rock) resident attending the meeting said he doesn’t view La Jolla as having “one unique character or as stagnant.

“We’ve got little, pointed roof cottages, modern structures and Spanish contemporary colonial (on my block),” he said. “At some point my family wants to put a little structure on our house and I just want to make sure we can still, hopefully, do it.”

Another resident, of Waverly Avenue, said La Jollans like herself are not contesting development, but the process of how it’s being approved by the city and carried out by some developers. “There are lots of homes that are two-story in Bird Rock that are done very well,” she said.

La Jollan Ed Comartin suggested the committee band together with other communities dealing with the same issue, such as Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Point Loma, while Wampler urged attendees to review an ordinance adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 2013 to control mansionization ( “It’s very concise; it’s very well-written, which could be an example for some things that we need to do with the zoning here in La Jolla.”

For the time and date of the next ad hoc committee meeting, or for coverage of the LJCPA’s July 2 meeting, pick up a copy of the July 16 edition of La Jolla Light.