|The beginning of the end?|
Dear City Council Members,
The key question that the City Council needs to answer is whether the first house at One Carter/Stonegate described as 610 Baldwin Court is suitable for its location in a very sensitive area of the hillside and suitable for the configuration of this particular lot. We believe the answer to both questions is a resounding NO. For that reason, we strongly recommend that the City Council exercise its discretion under the governing documents and vote to either deny this project or remand it back to the Planning Commission to be redesigned in a manner consistent with the governing documents.
The basis for our recommendation comes not from mere opinion but from the applicable documents themselves. These include the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Zone ordinance, the General Plan as well as the discretion allowed to the City Council by the Settlement Agreement itself, which states:
“The Hillside Development Permit Applications for the individual homes and related improvements on the One Carter lots shall include discretionary review of the precise layout, design, size, architectural treatment, engineering and similar details of the One Carter Residences under the New HMZ Ordinances….” (Settlement Agreement page 14 paragraph 5.3). Even in regards to the square footages for each house found in Exhibit I of the Settlement Agreement, it states that those square footages “…are the legally maximum allowable floor areas and do not constitute guarantees of the floor areas that will be authorized in the discretionary review process.” (Settlement Agreement page 15 paragraph 5.3).
Furthermore, the Settlement Agreement makes clear that “This Settlement Agreement does not constitute an approval of the Stonehouse applications, of the CS Settlement Proposal Plan or of any development application relating to the Stonehouse Property or the One Carter Property.” (Settlement Agreement page 5, paragraph 1,1.1).
Our Municipal Code specifically allows the City Council to review decisions of the Planning Commission, not for the purpose of rubber-stamping the decisions of a Planning Commission, but to make sure, as the elected representatives of the citizens, that the decision is correct and supported by the relevant legal documents. As stated above, those documents give the City Council the discretion to approve only projects that are strictly compatible with those documents including the more subjective policies found in some of the documents.
The discretion required for some of the more subjective policies of these documents is designed to be used, not for the benefit of the developer to exploit, but for the reviewing authority of the City as to where a project is to be built. In other words, the City Council is tasked with using their discretion to interpret the subjective policies found in the General Plan and elsewhere in a manner that is in the best interest of the residents of Sierra Madre and not in a manner that is in the best interest of the developer. The Courts will support a city over the developer in terms of who is allowed to interpret the subjective criteria found in a city’s documents.
We also must keep in mind that the Planning Commission did not issue a resounding approval for this project. They never said this was a good project and we hope you bring another project just like it. While they ended up voting in favor of this project, it was done only very reluctantly.
One Planning Commissioner said that she might end up approving it, but she would be “holding her nose as she does so.” Another Planning Commissioner called the design of the house a “Costco Design”. The adjectives “bland,” “boxy,” “cookie-cutter,” and “designed for flat lands” were repeatedly employed. There was much discussion of the developer doing just the minimum necessary to win approval.
We can only conclude from this and all the hostile interactions between the Planning Commission and the developer, that while the Planning Commission ultimately approved it, it can be honestly said they barely approved it. Additionally, one of the Planning Commissioners that was most critical of the project was out of state for the last Planning Commission hearing on the project. Given their lukewarm approval of the project, it’s possible that had he been in attendance he could have swayed some fellow commissioners and the vote would have had a different result. Consequently, there remains a certain latitude for which the ultimate authority, the City Council, can reasonably decide one way or another.
We know from the Settlement Agreement that this first house at One Carter must comply with the new HMZ Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan. The Settlement Agreement states that “… all of the lots … shall comply with the New HMZ Ordinance.” (Settlement Agreement page 14 paragraph 5.1). While the Settlement Agreement does refer to the exceptions found in Exhibits I and J as well as in regards to lot size and lot configurations, we will focus on the compliance required with all other aspects of the New HMZ Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan.
Before we discuss the specifics of how this first house at One Carter/Stonegate does not comply with the Stonegate Design Guidelines, New Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan, we need to point out what that compliance entails. First, we understand that the New HMZ Ordinance was drafted by the law firm of our present City Attorney with the specific purpose of making sure that the City has the maximum amount of control and discretion over what is built in our sensitive hillside areas. It was also written in a manner that is supposed to be enforceable in a Court of Law.
It was probably also written so that the City would not have to “hold its nose” when approving a project. We don’t take the position that the New HMZ Ordinance was poorly drafted. We believe it to be an excellent document that fulfills its stated purpose. Because we believe that, we have to believe that having to “hold our nose” to approve the project would not be due to sloppy drafting or loopholes in the New HMZ Ordinance but, rather, due to a project that does not comply with the very result that the HMZ ordinance was enacted to prevent.
We only need to cite a few provisions of the Hillside Management Ordinance to understand its purpose and intent in preventing bad developments. First, the New HMZ Ordinance states that “All buildings, structures and uses located on any R-H-Zoned lot shall comply with all of the provisions of this title….” (SMMC § 17.52.040 B). It doesn’t say that an applicant must comply with “some” of the provisions or “most” of the provisions, it mandates that “all” of the provisions be complied with. If there is any doubt about the importance and applicability of the General Plan, the New HMZ Ordinance is clear that to be approved each development “preserves hillside areas and is consistent with this chapter and with the General Plan.” (SMMC § 17.52.010). It further states that for the findings required to approve a hillside development permit, the reviewing authority shall find that “The proposed development is consistent with and serves to implement the General Plan and specifically, those General Plan goals and policies that pertain to hillside development.” (SMMC § 17.52.090 E 3 a)
To remove all doubt about what the drafters of the New HMZ Ordinance intended to achieve by their efforts to provide the City with maximum control over development in our sensitive hillside areas, under the subtitle “Conflict”, it states that “Should any conflict or ambiguity arise in the application to an R-H-zoned lot of any two or more provisions of this title, the more restrictive application or interpretation should apply.” (SMMC § 17.52.020).
In sum, the HMZ Ordinance as written insures that the reviewing authority, i.e. the City Council, has the maximum amount of authority and discretion to control development in our hillside areas. This ordinance is categorical that an applicant for a hillside permit must comply with all the provisions in the HMZ Ordinance and must comply with all the pertinent provisions in the 1996 General Plan.
In addition to the Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and the General Plan, the city has in place the “Stonegate Design Guidelines.” As stated in this document, “These design guidelines provide further guidance on design components, and will be made part of the Hillside Development Permit approval process. The design guidelines are to be utilized in addition to the standards and requirements of the Hillside Management Zone and processing requirements of the Settlement Agreement.” (Stonegate Design Guidelines page 1-2)
Finally, let it be said that if setbacks, height limits and such things as floor area ratios were sufficient in determining whether this project should go forward, these requirements could be written on one page. While some of the policies in the Stonegate Design Guidelines, Hillside Management Zone and General Plan are more general, subjective or discretionary, they are no less important to the end result than height, setbacks and other particulars. Courts have tended to give cities a great deal of discretion in determining what their city should look like and where development should be allowed. That discretion is found in the governing documents, and in particular, in the all-important General Plan which is, after all, the “People’s Document.”
The following points show how this first home, despite the changes and improvements that have been made, is still not in compliance with the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Zone and the General Plan:
Stonegate Design Guidelines Violations
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 1-1): “The design review guidelines are intended to promote the following: Development which is sensitive to the unique characteristics of the site and surrounding context.”
Violation: The project is big, bland, boxy and appears designed for flat land areas. There is nothing about the design that echoes or is otherwise sensitive to its unique hillside location. In fact, it appears to be designed simply to achieve near maximum lot coverage of the buildable portion of the lot and has no distinctions of any kind that would suggest a hillside setting was taken into account.
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 2-1): “The overall design objectives for Stonegate are: Development which minimizes physical and visual impacts to the site and natural surroundings.”
Violation: The structure has a looming presence so that the design actually maximizes the visual impacts to the site and natural surroundings. Instead of complementing nature or being harmonious with its natural surroundings, it overwhelms it.
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-4 Section C-1.2): “Diversity of design and individual expression are encouraged, provided that new buildings relate to existing buildings in the community in a way that creates a harmonious collective neighborhood.”
Violation: This house is disproportionate with that of the existing homes in Sierra Madre, and has has been referred to as a “Costco” design by one of the Planning Commissioners.
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-5 Section D-1.2): “The form, mass and profile of individual residences should consider the character and profile of natural slopes and be designed to limit impacts to the natural terrain remaining within the Stonegate development.”
Violation: The design ignores the profile of the natural slope. The southeast corner of the structure jams into the treescape and actually endangers the health of one of the few remaining surviving mature oak trees. Rather than being in harmony with the land around it, it is just on it in about as unnatural a way as could be imagined. And because of the odd shape of the lot, it looks like the house is squeezed into an area that is too small for its mass. Additionally, the grading plan for the project calls for the removal of nearly the entire slope on the north side of the lot and its replacement with two stacked four-foot high retaining walls. The house would be literally “shoe-horned” into the building pad and lose all harmony with its surrounding as a result. Rather than a home “designed to limit impacts to the natural terrain,” it would be aggravating the impact in a particularly jarring manner.
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-5 Section D-1.2): “Use of below-grade rooms to reduce building mass ...”
Violation: The subterranean idea meant that a 2-story house would appear to be 1-story and not grow from 2-stories to what is essentially 3-stories.
Stonegate Design Guidelines page 3-6, Section D-1-3): “Buildings should not call undue attention to themselves with monumental entries and/or overwhelming massing.”
Violation: As you approach the house from Baldwin, the massing is overwhelming as you walk up towards it. Further, there is limited fenestration on the second-story of the front façade, thereby increasing its appearance of massing.
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-6, Section D-1.6): “Two-story residences are encouraged to have a single-story element to provide transition to the two-story massing. Two story massing should be located towards the center of buildings with building height and massing stepping down at the edges or avoid the appearance of large, two-story ‘boxes.’”
Violation: While the proposed house does have a small one story element on it’s front façade, it presents a two story massing to its neighbor to the south and, because of its basement feature, a three story massing to its northern neighbor.
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 3-7, Section D-1.7): “Avoid creating a two-story structure that may directly overlook into neighboring properties. Privacy of adjacent uses should be considered in the scale and massing of structures.”
Violation: Again, the lot to the south will have face a two story massing towering over it. The project should not include a second story over its southerly portion (i.e., the garage).
Stonegate Design Guidelines (page 4-1, Section C): “Individual residential development applications within the Stonegate development shall conform with applicable development policies, standards and provisions as specified in the Sierra Madre General Plan, Municipal Code, Fire Code, Building Code, Settlement Agreement of March 23, 2010 and the Stonegate Design Guidelines.”
Violation: See below for a discussion of violations of and inconsistencies with the General Plan, the HMZ and other provisions of the Municipal Code.
Hillside Management Zone Violations
HMZ (17.52.010 C): “Facilitate hillside preservation through the development standards and guidelines set forth in this chapter; to direct and encourage development that is sensitive to the unique characteristics of the hillside areas in the city, which include, but shall not be limited to slopes, land forms, vegetation and scenic quality; accordingly, innovation in the design of buildings and structures is encouraged so long as the result preserves hillside areas and is consistent with this chapter and with the General Plan.”
Violation: The house obscures and ignores the natural environment, rather than being sensitive to its unique characteristics. For example, branches from the venerable oak just behind the proposed structure encroach into the story poles erected to demonstrate the massing of this project. Rather than design around this protected tree, the applicant decided to crowd it with a two story mass that will tower over the neighboring lot to the south. Additionally, the structure’s design is, in words used by the Planning Commission, bland, boxy and “cookie-cutter” rather than innovative.
HMZ (17.52.010 E): “Ensure that all hillside development is designed to fit the existing land form.”
Violation: The house is designed for flat land, ignoring the hillside land form. For example, it includes a large basement. This type of feature could be employed in a hillside setting to reduce the appearance of bulk and massing. Imagine a bi-level home that closely follows hillside contours. Instead this project includes a basement with one wall fully visible to the uphill side. So what technically counts as a two-story house presents a three-story massing to its northern neighbor. By working opposite the slope of the hillside, this project increases its appearance of bulk and massing, and minimizes its fit with the exiting land form. This placement of the basement also requires extensive excavation rather than following the existing slope of the land.
HMZ (17.52.010 F): “Preserve significant natural features of hillside areas, including swales, canyons, knolls, ridgelines, and rock outcrops. Development may necessarily affect natural features; therefore, a major design criterion for all hillside development shall be the minimization of impacts on such natural features.”
Violation: Unfortunately, a major design criterion for this project appears to be to encroach on the nearly protected oak as much as possible. The paired retaining walls and basement excavation also speak to its disregard for natural features.
HMZ (17.52.120 A 2): “Buildings and structures on R-H-zoned lots shall be designed to minimize their adverse visual impacts. The siting, shape, materials and colors of all such buildings and structures shall be designed and maintained so as to blend with the natural landscape.”
Violation: The proposed project’s lot is large, but much of its area is steeply sloped. Only a small portion of the lot was graded into a flat, buildable pad. The structure exploits this small pad with a big, boxy two-story mass. This massing sticks out rather than blends in. It includes no discernable local or natural materials. In fact, it was purposely designed to match Santa Barbara in style, not Sierra Madre. At the Planning Commission’s request, the applicant did change the project’s color to a muted beige, but its siting, shape and materials continue to be inconsistent with this HMZ provision.
HMZ (17.52.090 E 3): “Findings Required: In approving an administrative hillside development permit or a hillside development permit, the reviewing authority shall make all of the following findings:
“The proposed development is consistent with and serves to implement the general plan and specifically, those general plan goals and polices that pertain to hillside development;”
Violation: See below for a discussion of the project’s numerous inconsistencies with the General Plan.
“The proposed development is consistent with the purposes of this chapter;”
Violation: As discussed above, this project is inconsistent with many of the purposes of the HMZ. It is simply impossible to construe this house as consistent with the purposes of this chapter which purposes are clearly to preserve the feel of the natural setting.
The proposed development complies with the standards set forth in this chapter, including Section 17.52.120 (Design and Development Standards for Uses Requiring Hillside Development Permits) and Section 17.52.160 (Architectural and Site Design Standards).
Violation: In addition to the HMZ inconstancies discussed above, the project violates numerous HMZ standards. For example, the downhill second-story massing will obstruct its southern neighbor’s views in contravention of Section 17.52.160 A 3 (“Buildings and structures shall be oriented to preserve significant views from neighboring properties to the greatest extent feasible.”). As discussed above, the project sticks out rather than blends in as required by Section 17.52.160 B 3 (“The form, mass and profile of buildings, structures and architectural features shall be designed to blend with the natural terrain and to preserve the character and profile of natural slopes.”). Finally, the project’s imposing massing, failure to properly locate two-story sections, and ignorance of its land form result in it more closely resembling the “NOT THIS” rather than the “THIS” illustrations in the HMZ. See especially Figures 8 & 9.
The project also requires a conditional use permit. In accordance with Sierra Madre Municipal Code Section 17.60.040, before any conditional use permit is granted, the application shall show, to the reasonable satisfaction of the body hearing such matter, the existence of certain facts. Below we discuss the project’s inconsistency with the noted findings:
A. That the site for the proposed use is adequate in size, shape, and topography;
Violation: While the lot in question is large, it is oddly shaped, has only a small buildable pad, and contains a large area covered by steep slopes. In fact, according to the project’s survey map, over 57% the lot is comprised of Slope Category 4 area. Slope Category 4 is defined by Section 17.52.110 as having a natural slope of over 25%. Section 17.52.120 A 8 prohibits building in this area (“… no buildings or structures shall be located on any portion of an R-H-zoned lot in Slope Category 4.”). This leaves only 5,520 square feet of lot with a slope of less than 25%, i.e., Slope Categories 1, 2 & 3 combined.
How does this compare to the size of the proposed structure and what is allowed under the zoning code? Allowed floor area is a function of lot size. For this lot the New HMZ would allow just over 3,500 square feet (SMMC § 17.52.120 A 5), but the Settlement Agreement allows 4,153 square feet (this is the amount that would be allowed if flatland R-1 standards were applied to the lot, see SMMC § 17.20.125). In either case, the project’s 3,125 square feet complies.
On the other hand, if just the buildable section of the lot were considered (i.e., Slope Categories 1, 2 & 3 combined, but not Slope Category 4), the maximum floor area allowed would be only 1,800 square feet under the HMZ standards or only 2,100 square feet under R-1 standards. Far smaller than the proposed 3,125 square feet.
Keep in mind that the house includes a 675 square foot basement that is not included in the calculated floor area. While this is allowed under the HMZ and would make sense if it were employed in a manner to minimize bulk and massing, as discussed above, the project’s design does just the opposite. So we are faced with a proposed structure with a functional size of 3,800 square feet on a lot with a buildable portion that should withstand only 1,800 to 2,100 square feet according to Sierra Madre development standards.
We do not provide these calculations to suggest that the project’s floor area is a prima facie violation of the applicable floor area limits. Rather they lend some quantification of to the many statements in this letter and by others in multiple public hearings that the proposed structure is too big for its lot.
C. That the proposed use will not unreasonably interfere with the use, possession and enjoyment of surrounding and adjacent properties;
Violation: As discussed above, the proposed house is out of scale with Sierra Madre relative to the size, slope and configuration of its lot. It will tower over its southern neighbor and present a three-story massing to its northern neighbor.
E. That the use, if permitted, will, as to location and operation, be consistent with the objectives of the general plan; and
Violation: See below for a discussion of inconsistencies with the General Plan.
F. That the public interest, convenience, and necessity require that use be permitted at the location requested.
Violation: While the General Plan, HMZ and Settlement Agreement all contemplate residential use on the lot in question, nothing requires that a structure this large, this bland and this devoid of connection to its unique surroundings be permitted here.
1996 General Plan Violations
General Plan (Land Use Issues, page 17 #6): “Residential neighborhoods are varied throughout the City regarding lot sizes, housing sizes, age and style of structures. There is no one characteristic Sierra Madre neighborhood. However, residents are able to identify structures which ‘fit’ in Sierra Madre versus those which do not.”
Violation: The proposed house does not fit in due to its massing, bland design and failure to address its surroundings. The house is too large for its building pad. The height of the structure is disproportionate to the size of the buildable area of the lot. Its design seems torn from a flat land tract home sample book rather than having been custom tailored to its unique hillside setting.
True to this General Plan provision, by speaking against this proposed structure at numerous Planning Commission and City Council meetings, the residents of Sierra Madre have identified it as an ill fit. To our memory, not one resident has spoken in favor of the project.
Why do Sierra Madre residents overwhelmingly find that the proposed house does not fit? Because as discussed above, where the zoning code’s floor area calculations see a 3,125 square foot house on a lot of over 13,000 square feet, the project will look and feel like a 3,800 square foot structure on a 5,520 square feet lot. Or to the layman’s eye, nearly twice as big as it should be.
General Plan (Overview of Land Use Policy, page 18 paragraph 1): “The fundamental principle behind the land use policy of the General Plan is to maintain the existing low density, village character of Sierra Madre in the same urban development pattern that exists today … Hillside areas should be preserved either in their natural state or with very low density residential development which is designed to be sensitive to the environmental nature of the foothills.”
Violation: The proposed house does not maintain the village character that exists today. This house is an example of what can be found in many tracts in Glendale and Burbank. This house does not reflect the hillside environment.
General Plan (Summary of Land Use Goals, page 18 #2): “Preserve and enhance the diversity in character of residential neighborhoods ensuring that new development is compatible in its design with older established development in stable neighborhoods without attempting to replicate or mass produce a style of development.”
Violation: This house does not preserve or enhance the character of the surrounding neighborhoods. Its design is neither unique, innovative nor compatible with nearby established neighborhoods. This is born out by how it was described by the Planning Commission.
General Plan (Residential Land Use Designations, page 21, Objective L6): “Ensure that the massing and scale of new infill construction, additions and alterations to new structures be consistent with that of the existing block.”
Violation: The massing and scale of this house are not consistent with that of the existing development in Sierra Madre. If all of the One Carter lots are allowed to be developed at this scale, the tract will not resemble any area of town.
General Plan (page 24, Objective L12): “Facilitate hillside preservation through development standards and guidelines which provide direction and encourage development sensitive to the unique characteristics found in the hillside areas in the city."
Violation: The form, mass and profile of this residence does not consider the character and profile of the land it is on, nor does it limit impacts to the natural terrain remaining within Stonegate/One Carter. In fact, some of the very few surviving trees are considered to be interferences. The form, mass and profile of this building does not blend with the natural terrain. It dominates the area and diminishes the view of the few surviving mature trees on the hillside to the east.
General Plan (page 24, Objective L12.1): “Determine that development density of sites based on a calculation that uses slope as a primary factor, that is, the steeper the slop the more restrictive the density.”
Violation: We won’t rehash this in detail again. As discussed above, more than half the lot is so steep as to be unbuildable, yet rather than compensate by reducing the size of the proposed house, it is designed as if it were sited on a flat lot of equal size.
General Plan (page 25, Objective L14): “Protect the views to and from hillside areas in order to maintain the image and identity of the City as a village of the foothills.”
Violation: This house does not maintain the image and identity of the City as a village in the foothills. It obstructs the views of its southerly neighbor.
General Plan (page 25, Objective L14.1): “Require the use of natural materials and earth tone colors for all structures to blend with the natural landscape and natural chaparral vegetative growth.”
Violation: While the project is colored in earth tones at the Planning Commission’s request, it does not employ natural materials nor blend in with the natural landscape..
General Plan (page 25 L14.2): “Require that all development be designed to reflect the contours of the existing land form using techniques such as split pads, detaching secondary structures (such as garages), avoiding the use of excessive cantilevers.”
Violation: As discussed above in more detail, this house does not reflect the contours of the existing land forms. It should follow the line of the hillside.
General Plan (page 25, Objective L14.3): “Require that significant features of the natural topography be preserved to the maximum extent possible, including swales, canyons, knolls, ridge lines, and rock outcrops.”
Violation: See discussion above.
In conclusion, and based upon the above violations of the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Ordinance, CUP and the 1996 General Plan, the City Council is urged to deny this first house located at 610 Baldwin Court. At the very least, the City Council should remand this project back to the Planning Commission to be redesigned in a manner consistent with these governing documents.
All of the policies and provisions in place in the relevant documents were drafted for this very purpose – to prevent a City from losing control over decisions about its land use policies. These documents were literally designed to give the City the authority to use their discretion to insure that no one has to “hold their nose” in order to approve any project in Sierra Madre and particularly not one located in our hillside zone.
We believe, and hope you believe as well, that the standard for building homes in Sierra Madre is higher than that. In short, we have to ask ourselves how we could possibly end up with a result that the Settlement Agreement, the Stonegate Design Guidelines, the Hillside Management Zone Ordinance and the 1996 General Plan were trying to prevent.
What good are these documents if we allow a developer to interpret them and exploit them in a manner that maximizes their profit and yet is adverse to the interests of the community that the documents were designed to protect?
We also ask that you imagine that if this one home doesn’t fit on its lot, what will it look like to have twenty more similar ones built in that same area. It will permanently alter the character of our town by leaving us with a certain geographical area of our town that is set apart and different from the surrounding neighborhood.
Try to imagine another two-story house (which with a partially exposed basement will look like a three-story structure) of over 3,000 square feet rising within a few feet of this one. Try to imagine 20 plus more, on both sides of the street marching up the hillside – a wall of disproportionately tall, bland houses overwhelming the “environmentally sensitive nature of the hillsides.”
As goes this one, the others will surely follow.
One final point needs to be made. Someone reading the record of this project could conclude that the developer made many concessions to arrive at the present design. But the credit for those "concessions" lies not with a recalcitrant developer, but with a Planning Commission that moved this from the horrible project that was first submitted to one that is now merely a bad project. We strongly believe that, at the very least, Sierra Madre deserves a good project and we believe that the governing documents dictate that result.
We appreciate your consideration of this letter and we trust that each of you will do your best to represent the residents of Sierra Madre by making a decision that will be in the best interests of our community.