City of Laguna Beach
505 Forest Ave.
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
August 7, 2009
Re: Ordinance with regard to existing nonconformities
Dear Planning Commissioners,
Historically, the Board of Adjustment/Design Review Board has heard requests for variances not to bring existing nonconformities into conformance and generally granted them. Despite the difficulty of meeting the strict criteria for findings for a variance, it’s been agreed that it would be a hardship to have to tear down part of one’s house in order to make improvements in it.
Sometimes, however, the board has determined that the nonconformity could reasonably be considered correctable and accordingly denied the variance. With regard to nonconforming number of parking spaces, in particular, the board has often engaged in conversations with applicants about ways of bringing the parking more or less into conformity—sometimes by adding a second garage, a carport, or an uncovered parking space somewhere on the property or allowing tandem parking and sometimes by limiting the size or nature of the addition. Here the thinking has been that enlarging a house has implications for the number of cars that are likely to be associated with it.
The fact that a variance request was necessary has allowed the board an opportunity to evaluate the impact of the particular nonconformity and try to do something about it. The right to keep an existing nonconformity required permission and the payment of a fee, and this seems consistent with the fact that doing so is a benefit that neighbors whose houses were built to code don’t enjoy. (The case of a house that encroaches into the blufftop setback and therefore has a better view than its more recently built neighbors is a good example.)
Therefore, if we’re codifying historical practice in this new ordinance, we think it’s appropriate that there be some review by the board to make sure that (1) the nonconformities can’t be easily corrected, (2) the existing situation meets safety requirements, (3) that it isn’t likely to add cars to the street or, if it is, that it handles the problem of additional cars as well as can be managed, and (4) that it preserves the mass and scale characteristic of the neighborhood.
We believe that the board would welcome an opportunity for such review. It appears, however, that adopting the proposed ordinance change will make it unnecessary for existing nonconformities even to be mentioned in the noticing of a project and in any staff report on it.
Codifying historical practice by removing the need for a variance for existing nonconformities makes sense, especially now that the anti-mansionization ordinance has created a number of new ones, and it’s important that the board’s decisions be legally defensible. Removing existing nonconformities from any scrutiny, however, is unlikely to be in the City’s best interest and would be unfair to the many people who have paid the price and received variances for them in the past.
We suggest that the variance process for existing nonconformities be replaced with a permit process with review by the Board of Adjustment that would produce findings that are more appropriate to the situation. These findings might include some or all of the considerations mentioned above and others drawn from the board’s experience. Among them should probably be a maximum percentage of floor area and/or a maximum size such as exist in the current ordinance. The first step would be to change paragraph (A) to read something like “Adding to or enlarging a building, structure, or improvement that is nonconforming is permitted under the following circumstances:” and then list the conditions under which property owners would be allowed to enlarge their houses without violating the scale and character of the neighborhood.
With regard to the maximum size of the addition, we have reservations about eliminating the floor-area percentage and about the particular the square-footage limit that’s suggested. If the average size of a house in Laguna Beach is 1,800 square feet, then, given that there are houses of 6,000–10,000 square feet, there must be many, many houses that are much smaller than 1,800 square feet—and it’s likely to be these houses that have nonconforming parking. It seems that we now have the capability of calculating the average size of houses in neighborhoods, and we think that a survey of the neighborhoods that have one-car garages will show that 1,800 square feet is larger than average. Allowing a house to, say, double in size without doing anything about the extra cars that it will generate seems rash.
We suggest that an empirically based average figure for neighborhoods with one-car (or no) garages would be a better figure to use. Alternatively, we could use the average size of the houses in the immediate neighborhood (the block? a set number of houses on either side and across the street?) or say “x square feet or the average size of houses in the immediate neighborhood, whichever is more restrictive.”
More important than an appropriate upper limit, however, is that the board have the opportunity and the responsibility to consider ways of improving the parking situation when these nonconforming structures are enlarged. Under the current ordinance, parking is removed from consideration under the 1,500-square-foot standard, and as a result we’re seeing houses that are much larger than the original ones and have no off-street parking at all. The proposed ordinance would perpetuate this situation with an even higher maximum size.
We appreciate the opportunity to raise these issues and look forward to a refinement of the proposed ordinance that will meet the concerns we all share.
For the Village Laguna Board