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Rejecting some ideas, Council postpones hearing on McMansion changes

Monday, May 19, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The McMansion ordinance – some of the most persistently reviewed, rehashed and refined guidelines in recent memory – will go back to the original task force again to address additional issues raised since the task force was disbanded last December.


The task force spent 17 meetings reviewing an exhaustive list of issues around the implementation of the ordinance, from zipper walls to dormers to sidewall articulation. On Thursday, Planner Jessica King provided the Council with an update on those areas where the task force, Planning Commission and stakeholders still disagreed.


Council agreed to delay the public hearing on the proposals, giving the original task force a chance to take up additional recommendations. The goal would be to put the recommendations back before the Planning Commission next month.


The task force forwarded 28 recommendations to Planning Commission. The Planning Commission approved 25 of those 28 recommendations: 21 with no comment; three with additional staff recommendations; and one required no action because another task force was addressing it.


King outlined the three recommendations where the groups parted: exemptions for floor-area-ratio on attached and detached carports; the definition of gross area space for space under six feet in height, which often is not considered habitable; and the requirements for common walls for duplexes.


Even disagreement among stakeholders did not make those recommendations controversial. The real controversy – and one of the main reasons task force member Danette Chimenti was in the audience – was a proposal that the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission be given broader authority to grant variances to compatibility on residential and commercial property, as well as variances on impervious cover.


“I don’t think it’s appropriate that compatibility standards and impervious cover be waived without a hardship,” Chimenti said after the briefing. “There should always be a good reason for granting a variance to compatibility standards, especially when it comes to commercial properties.”


Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken clearly had been informed of the strong opposition to the expansion of the RDCC authority. Leffingwell moved to direct the task force to strike the proposal. McCracken volunteered that the proposal had been his own, and that he now recognized the proposal had not been well received.


Another recommendation, made by city staff, would contract the boundaries of the McMansion area to remove Northwest Hills and Highland Park because so many homes were built behind the floor-to-area-ratio recommendations set out by the McMansion ordinance. McCracken protested, saying he carried the ordinance and specifically included the two neighborhoods.


“I would object to exempting or removing entirely those neighborhoods. They’re really in the target zone, in need of protection,” said McCracken, suggesting that the boundaries might need to be expanded as well as contracted. “I’m seeing problems (in Northwest Hills and Highland Park) that led to the McMansions task force in the first place.”


Various stakeholder groups also put a number of other recommendations on the table. One proposal, outlined by the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission, outlined how the RDCC could interact with the Historic Landmark Commission to approve modifications to historic and contributing structures.


Other recommendations that did not have consensus or were not fully vetted dealt with the proper horizontal articulation of upper stories on a structure and exempting new subdivisions on larger pieces of land within the city limits.


McCracken also criticized one proposal that would exempt homes under 1,500-square-feet from McMansion guidelines in an attempt to increase affordable housing.


Council had rejected that proposal twice, McCracken said, but the idea kept resurrecting itself. The city, even in search of alternatives for affordable housing, was going to have to live by the same rules as the private sector, he said. Otherwise, the city was going to end up with oversized commercially driven West Coast capital funded venture properties.


“Instead of making affordability better, it’s making affordability worse,” McCracken said adamantly. “We need to stop seeing this effort to exempt ourselves from the McMansion rules in our urban core neighborhoods.”


City Manager Marc Ott, in a rather even manner, asked whether the staff was acting outside city policy. No, McCracken admitted, but on two different occasions the Council had rejected staff recommendations on the exemption of smaller homes.


Ott stood his ground, replying that staff could make a recommendation and Council could reject that recommendation, but if McCracken wanted a particular action to stop, then Council needed to embed that in permanent policy.


“The fact that you simply don’t support a staff recommendation doesn’t necessarily change policy,” Ott noted.


After a pause, McCracken admitted Ott had a fair point. Ott said that if Council did not want to see a particular kind of recommendation again, then the policy needed to be revised in some way to simply preclude it. Then the staff would operate in such a way that would follow that particular policy.


Later, when the public hearing came up on the agenda, McCracken moved to postpone the item until the June 18 Council meeting. It was approved with instructions to staff to return amendment proposals that remove any consideration of changing jurisdictions, remove any exemption for homes of 1,500 square feet or less, and remove boundary qualifications from the amendments.

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