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Santa Monica's Planning Commission Starts Cleaning Up Residential Zoning Laws

Frank Gruber for Santa Monica City Council
Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
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By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

September 21, 2012 -- Santa Monica's Planning Commissioners spent almost four hours Wednesday night discussing the future of the City's residential neighborhoods.

As part of the long process of updating the City's Zoning Ordinances, the Commissioners discussed proposed changes that would affect 96 percent of 8.3-square-mile city's land, currently zoned for residential use.

The consultants have “basically taken the ordinance we already have and reorganized it,” said Planning Commissioner Chair Gerda Newbold. “The current ordinance is very user unfriendly.”

“We're reorganizing this in a way that's more visual, more tables and some drawings to try to make it easier to understand,” Newbod said, adding that the update would simplify some of the zoning classifications.

But the consultants, Dyett & Bhatia Urban and Regional Planners, had questions for the Commissioners about how much of the current ordinance works and what should be changed.

For one, the proposed zoning updates would require “that multi-unit buildings provide 60

square feet of private open space per unit (equivalent to a six-foot by 10-foot balcony) and a total of 100 to 150 square feet of open space per residential unit,” the consultant's report said.

“I believe we should do all we can to create as much open space as possible in new multi-family housing,” said Commissioner Ted Winterer.

Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon thought that revising the zoning ordinance was a good opportunity to talk about solar panels.

“We need to turn the City deep green," he said. "One of the things we're going to have to do is to put solar panels on roofs.”

He pointed out that he wouldn't want a revised height limitation ordinance to preclude solar panels that may protrude from roofs.

One of the stickier topics was the question of height limits on fences, walls and bushes.

The consultant suggested lowering the heights of fences, walls or shrubs at corner side yards to three and a half feet. The consultant also suggested getting rid of chain link and razor wire fences.

“We went through a contentious period in our city's history,” Winterer said about the battle over height limits on walls and fences that raged from 2002 to 2005 (“Council Makes Room for Taller Hedges and Fences,” July 13, 2005 ).

He added that since that battle, there's been a truce and he saw no reason not to leave well enough alone.

The Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) -- adopted in 2010 -- says that the character of Santa Monica's residential neighborhoods should be maintained but still allow for some flexibility of design.

“Through its goals and policies, the LUCE places new emphasis on physical character and the compatibility of new and remodeled structures with existing neighborhoods,” City staff wrote.

Ultimately, the proposed changes to the zoning ordinances are few. Winterer described them as “small tweaks.”

“We want (the neighborhoods) to remain similar,” said Newbold. “That's why it makes sense that there are not a lot of changes.”

“The first step in a long process,” said Winterer.

The Planning Commission will continue the discuss the future of Santa Monica's neighborhoods at its October 3 meeting, when it wll take up Residential Design Guidelines.

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