Wednesday, August 20, 2014

San Marino's McBunker Wars: Coming To Sierra Madre?

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Yesterday we posted about the "McBunker" design concept, and how this could be used by a certain crafty developer to hide the massing and excessive square footage of McMansion style development at One Carter. All done by, quite simply, burying it beneath the house.

The idea that this jumbo basement solution could be a workable resolution to CETT's troubling home development problems at One Carter was first suggested a few months back by then Planning Commission Chair Thomas Pendlebury. CETT's architect Adele Chang apparently has now run with that lead, and at this Thursday's Planning Commission meeting the first true McBunker house ever in Sierra Madre will be considered. Something that could open the door to an entirely new, and in my opinion unfortunate, race to development in town.

This led to a number of comments here on The Tattler, but none more revealing than the following:

Actually, this has been happening for awhile in San Marino as an approach to "hiding" the mass of a house that exceeds the allowed building envelope, and Adele Chang does a lot of work in that community, having been on the DRC for a few years. What triggered the issue in that community was the abuse of the basement area (as well as attics) that were undefined empty spaces that didn't conform to code because they were theoretically just storage areas or underground car parking. These spaces got illegally built out later, of course. When a basement is designed as habitable space, it requires two stair exits, just like the plan shows, as well as artificial lighting and HVAC systems to replace the normal light and ventilation provided by windows. More importantly, it's legal habitable space and is therefore counted as such and is counted towards the property tax on that parcel, unlike the "unfinished" attics and basements, and is subject to inspection for code violations. San Marino has just adopted a code ordinance to deal with this situation.

As you know, basements are dungeon-like even when built out as habitable space, and inevitably develop leaks over time when it rains; it's not the panacea for living areas that this would appear to offer. Smart improvements would include shelving to keep everything 6 inches off the floor and easily replaced floor finishes. Any bedroom that has no windows is unavoidably a "bunker", although a large-screen TV can help distract from that.

This inspired me to do a little research on everyone's favorite search engine Google, and I did turn up three relevant newspaper articles dealing with what really was a big controversy in San Marino. Apparently there were no ordinances in place at the time to deal with all of this, and people were quite up in arms over what had been happening.

Which does raise some questions about the kinds of building codes and regulations Sierra Madre has in place regarding McBunkers. Since the One Carter project being considered Thursday evening is the first of its kind here, my guess is there is very little, if anything, on the books. At least so far.

The first article I'm citing today about the big basement brouhaha in San Marino comes to us from The San Marino Tribune. Titled "Residents Oppose Livable Area Expansion," and first published in November of 2013, it can be linked to on their site by clicking here.

A capacity crowd filled the entire Barth Community Room at the city’s most recent city council event Wednesday, voicing their opposition to thoughts of potential livable area expansion beneath the surface of new homes.

Residents reiterated the theme of “If San Marino ain’t broke, why fix it?,” saying that the reasons for San Marino’s stringent limitations are set up to protect the character of the neighborhood. One resident argued that increasing livable area, even if it were to proceed under ground, would give new homeowners license to tear down homes that have been here since the 1920s.

The argument for expanding livable area in the form of a basement, say council members, is to give new homeowners subterranean space and reduce the visual bulkiness and massiveness of the outward appearance of the home and surrounding homes.

As the below ground space is allowed to expand, the above ground livable space becomes more restricted. Nearly all who spoke to the council Wednesday evening, however, were opposed to the idea.

Jim Barger said that if homes are allowed to expand, it would give new homeowners an excuse to tear down the whole house. Brad Ball said San Marino shouldn’t feel pressure to follow what other cities do, because San Marino is not like other cities. Realtor Linda Chang said realtors might use expansion as an enticement for securing a property deal, casting her vote against basement development.

It is part of the council’s obligation to review, maintain or update codes which have not been revisited for a dozen years or so. The discussion on livable area fit that description.

Zen Vuong, who until recently was the Sierra Madre beat reporter for the Pasadena Star News (she has since escaped), wrote two articles about the controversy. The first is titled "City council debates changes in basement regulation," and was published in May of 2013. It can be linked to in its entirety here.

Instead of going underground, Chris Hubble, 45, decided to build his home within the view of city officials when he nearly doubled the size of the residence three years ago.

Other San Marino homeowners have chosen not to expose their development plans. In the last two years, 43 percent of San Marino residents who requested permits for new houses had basement plans ranging in size from 997 to 5,606 square feet because the city doesn't consider basement area when it calculates a property's maximum allowable livable space, a city report said.

As long as these underground dwellings don't include heating or cooling systems or appliances, then the city has no say in how the space is being used. So homeowners have found a loophole for building bigger homes.

As we noted on this blog yesterday, the City of Sierra Madre does not "consider basement area when it calculates a property's maximum allowable livable space" either. Which is why CETT's architect, Adele Chang, can claim that the home she has designed for construction at One Carter is a relatively modest (for her) 3,264 square feet, when it is actually 4,613 square feet when you add in the McBunker.

A "loophole for building bigger homes" indeed.

The second of Zen's two articles on this turbulent topic appeared in the Pasadena Star News in May of this year. Titled "San Marino proposes basement regulation to address underground dwelling trend in homes," it shows how the City Council there grappled with these challenges, and eventually came up with a some solutions. You can link to this article here.

On the surface, all is right with the city code, but underneath, in overgrown basements, people are getting away with dangerous living quarters, officials said Wednesday.

David Saldana, San Marino’s planning and building director, said the affluent suburb has a burgeoning trend where people come in, buy property, raze the house and build “their so-called dream home.”

“They just want additional livable area, and perhaps they realize that they’ve reached their maximum limit already, so the only place where they could potentially do that would be in an area that is already essentially there, and that would be the basement,” Saldana said. “So they just end up converting them illegally and, in most cases, it’s a very unsafe situation because basements that were built as storage areas don’t provide the level of safety and protection that a normal living area would.”

The City Council struggled with the details of a proposed ordinance and delayed the issue until May 30. Under the proposal, any future home with a basement greater than 5 percent of the statutory parcel area would be required to be permitted as livable area, regardless of how the owner intends to use the space.

Although the entire basement would be considered livable area, only 50 percent would count toward the maximum allowable livable area. And basements won’t be able to exceed 60 percent of the footprint of the main house.

All of which raises some real questions for Sierra Madre. What ordinances do we have in place that deal with McBunker subterranean home expansion being one of them. And should Adele Chang's plans for One Carter pass muster with the Planning Commission Thursday evening, what is to prevent lots of other cash happy people from suddenly digging new "living space" under their homes?

Jeff Hildreth, take note.

Of course, my biggest question today is what was Tom Pendlebury thinking when he suggested to Adele Chang that she design a home with what turned out to be a 1,349 square foot McBunker beneath it? Judging by what went down in San Marino, our man Tom just might have opened quite a Pandora's Box.

Arnold's Hardware had better stock up on shovels. A lot of homeowner bunker digging could soon be going down in this town.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

47 comments:

  1. Our planning commission needs to protect us and not invite the same problems that other cities are already having to deal with. We need to take this time during the moratorium to tighten up all the loopholes including the basement issue. Former planning commissioner Hutt mentioned some good ideas too like making the building permit fee more expensive and dependant upon the size of the house. We also need to lower the threshold from when a house needs to go to the planning commission from the current 4,000 square feet to more like 2,500 square feet. We need to tighten up all building codes, zoning the general plan etc. to remove the discretion that a planning commission and city council have to approve bad projects. Now is the time to do this. We need to get it right so that we don't have to battle each and every McMansio

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    1. I don't think the Planning Commission has gotten the message yet about how Sierra Madre feels about over-development in our city. Before Chairman Pendlebury offers any more good ideas to developers, he ought to do his homework. He should have known about the basement problem and how San Marino is dealing with it before he opened his mouth. The problem is that the people who often get on the Planning Commission are connected to the development industry like being architects and builders themselves. We need ordinary citizens with some common sense and who want to preserve the character of Sierra Madre and don't want to see it turn into another Arcadia. That transformation won't happen all at once. It will happen one McMansion at a time with a few bursts of activity if Mater Dolorosa, Stonehouse and One Carter developers get their way.

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    2. 6:32 has some excellent ideas. Another idea would be to prevent someone from building a 2-story home between two 1-story homes and blocking their light and views. It all comes down to
      people have the right to do certain things with their own property so long as it does not step on the rights of others who
      may be affected by what that person does. Because people are not always good neighbors to one another, we have to have rules and regulations in place to mandate that people do the right thing that they should have voluntarily done in the first place.

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    3. Unfortunately we can't rely on the Planning Commission to do what's best for Sierra Madre. We need some people to show up for the meeting on Thursday and let them know that building a bunker is not acceptable.

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    4. IMHO this would not become a Planning issue. A Soils Report would kill the plan. The foothills are largely scree - a loose jumble of d.g. ,stones and rocks that is several hundred feet deep in parts. With enough rain it becomes quite mobile= mudslide. Sierra Madre had an epic mudslide in the 70's.It only takes a heavy rainstorm for many tons of rock, soil and house to come sliding down hill. How are they going to prevent this? Anchor it to bedrock? Yes, we're back to that word again!
      So grant permission for McBunkers only if the foundations are anchored to bedrock. At least we would learn something about bedrock. Because we seem to have precious little knowledge of that subject for McBunkers or water wells.

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    5. Rule of Thumb: When the problem is drilling new wells for water, the fault lies with bedrock. When enabling development, bedrock is not a problem.

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  2. The only question is whether Sierra Madre wakes up to the development pressure that is now facing our community. With other communities being built out, Sierra Madre is now in the cross hairs of the developers. It is no coincidence that One Carter and Stonehouse are owned by Chinese developers who simply have different ideas about what Sierra Madre should look like from an architectural standpoint. They and their clients want the same kind of homes in Arcadia that are often built big enough to accommodate more than one family. Any one can move to Sierra a Madre but they should have to conform to the architectural standards set by the community ....provided we have cared enough to set those architectural standards.

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  3. There needs to be a turnout at the Planning Commission meeting to put the kabash on a very alarming trend if Chairman Pendlebury gets his way. Large basements will be illegally turned into all sorts of things like rental units and businesses. What in the world is Pendlebury thinking? He should talk to the Planning Department in San Marino to find out why they had to step in and put the brakes on a growing problem with over-sized basements in their community. We should not bend over backwards to accommodate Adele Cheng and her invisible client. They need to build something in keeping with the community or go build their monstrosities in communities like Arcadia that have lost all control over development on their towns.

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    1. Pendlebury termed out. The current line up is Chair Desai, Vice-Chair Goldstein, Commissioners Buckles, Frierman-Hunt, Paschall, Pevsner, Spears

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    2. The Planning Commission plays such an important role in the development process. That's why we need preservation-minded people on that commission. Paschall has been the only reliable voice on the commission in that regard.

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    3. Can anyone provide readers with what the day job is for each of the commission members and an assessment of whether they are in the preservationist camp or the pro-development camp.

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    4. For the most part the members of the Planning Commission are good and thoughtful people who have the interests of the community at heart. The best place to look is their record of accomplishment. I am sure they will deal with this latest problem adequately.

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    5. I hope 8:24 is right.

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    6. 8:24 is right. Sure hope their commitment to the community holds true tomorrow night.

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  4. I wonder where Tom got the idea. Maybe a little birdy whispered it in his ear?

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  5. Basements in houses? Unheard of, except for millions of homes in the Midwest and east coast..what is the big deal? If you don't want the same scenario as San Marino then amend or change building codes. Basement living spaces are a wonderful feature, if done properly they are not dungeon like....here's an easier solution to the development problem...ban nails and 2x4 ' s in Sierra Madre

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    1. Being from the east coast I cannot recall many 5,600 square foot basements there. But I am sure you know better.

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    2. When you say ban nails and 2 x 4's, you are trying to ridicule the people who don't like the garish houses we see in places like Arcadia. Let people build homes that are in keeping with the neighborhood and that doesn't adversely impact on their neighbors like blocking views and light. Is that too much to ask?

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    3. Why should people who are brand new to town have more say in how this community will look than those who have lived here for a long time? Whose rights are more important here?

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    4. Do you work for the city?

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    5. Anyone who pays taxes works for the city.

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    6. Anyone who pays taxes works for the city, huh? I guess I was right, you do work for the city, buy, uh, do you pay FICA?

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    7. Have another drink. Try the pig's knuckles while you're at it.

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  6. I don't have any problem with basements 8:23. But the operative words here as you mentioned is "basement living spaces". That needs to be included in the allowable square footage. We also need to guard against basements that can easily be converted into living spaces or businesses later on. I do agree that we need to amend and change certain building codes if we care enough about it. I care and want to change it. If you don't think it's an issue, take the time to read why San Marino was forced to deal with the problem.

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  7. No sure, but isn't there something in the Hillside Ord. that limits the amout of excavation that can take place?

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  8. If the Planning Commission approves this bunker house, they would in effect be legislating a new law. I don't think they can do that.

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    1. They can't. Only elected officials can legislate.

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    2. But if the planning commission agreed that underground was the way to go, how can they reverse themselves now? They might get sued no matter what, but wouldn't they (us) for sure get sued if they reversed like that?

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    3. That is the big question. Why was this bunker idea even said?

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  9. ARCADIA IS SELLING SIERRA'S WATER FOR $1.00 PER WATER UNIT TO ARCADIA RESIDENTS! Are you aware that the east Raymond water basin is a.k.a. field wide reservoir or a shared water reservoir between "all who have a water pump drawing non-segerated water from the same source". Another way to look at it could be simpler put. If you have a large glass of water with multiple straws... Which belong to sierra madre and arcadia. If arcadia is the only city sucking / drinking water from the straw... Arcadia could empty the entire glass of water prior to sierra madre having a sip! Well.. I believe arcadia has at least 7 water wells) north of foothill blvd (4 at arcadia fire station on orange grove + 1 at baldwin & orange grove + 2 at anokia estates) drawing water plus the new mega well at baldwin and 210 freeway drawing water from the same shared east Raymond field wide water reservoir. By sierra madre failing to produce water at the same time arcadia produces water. Arcadia can run the same field wide water reservoir dry. FACT: Arcadia is selling sierra madre $3.00+/- water for $1.00 a water unit to Arcadia's property owners! If sierra madre fails to draw water we have no stored water remaining. Sierra madre needs to get commercial water wells on line and be competitive with arcadia. We the residents need a Forensic Accounting to determine where all the water enterprise moneys have gone? Does anyone know how much money is available in the water enterprise checking account? City hall is also in violation of failing to provide copies of "Public Record Documents" a.k.a. city water enterprise documents. City hall has caused harm to its residents 1) by failure to account for and segregate all water enter prise monies from the general fund, 2) ruining property values by failing to produce and deliver water at an affordable price to its residents! ! What are the residents going to do about it? Failure to produce - provide water to its residents, effects the entire property values in sierra madre and so far no one seems to care. Why. We need the residents help to enforce our rights!
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE DROID

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    1. OH Please. We are not Arcadia. We are 3 square miles. City Hall has not done harm to the residents. Arcadia isn't selling anything to Sierra Madre now, it all comes from the MWD - rust and all. Maybe if the property values go down, the Carter One people won't be so eager to build and the Mater Delarosa will find some other way to help the poor aging priests. (which numbers about 10.)

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    2. Does that include the ones in prison? They get room and board!!

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    3. Hey you got a new phone! 4G Lite Droid nice!! Hope you get better reception in Sierra Madre than I do. Congratulations........

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  10. Funny how this is going on in the dead of August. Ok, maybe it is not funny.

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    1. Funny ha ha or funny strange?

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    2. Funny strange.

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  11. Maybe.... City Hall will need to build a bunker to keep its unhappy residents away!

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    1. City Hall reminds me of the movie Fort Apache.

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  12. After a couple of days looking at the "Santa Barbara" design, I have to say, I find it unattractive and boring. The architect must have boiler plates of these things. There is nothing unique or interesting about them.

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    1. They are absolutely boiler plate. No doubt about that. And part of the original lie developers and realtors told about the project was that each home would be individual and custom designed. Want to be that the architect has done the exact same house other places?

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    2. Great observation

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  13. Just process-wise, how do you dig down into granite bedrock. Dynamite, yeah? So we're talking about using dynamite on an earthquake fault?

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    1. Fire Frackers.

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    2. If I remember correctly it was the house was to be one story above ground with second below to fit into hillside better. Thought it good idea at time. Tell Adele to make it one story and no second floor.

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    3. It's not Adele who is making any of the decisions here. It's the gal who pays her, aka CETT investments.

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    4. Planning Commissioners should not make suggestions to developers, time for Adele to step down.

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