Bell Changes Zoning Law to Agree With Years of Violations

Times Staff Writer

It has been 25 years since John Bibb and his wife bought their modest 2-bedroom home on Otis Street for $6,200 and built two rental units in the spacious back yard.

Now Bibb, 63, is near retirement and says his future income will depend on the 2-story apartment building that rises above his pink bungalow-style house.

"They gave me all the permits. They told us everything was all legal," Bibb said recently as he stood in the shadow of the apartment building.

As it turns out, Bibb is one of hundreds of homeowners in this city who apparently have unintentionally violated zoning laws by adding back-yard apartments, officials said.

Violations Are Routine

Because of a longstanding misinterpretation of the city's zoning ordinance, Planning Department staffers have routinely violated the city's zoning code by approving plans to build apartments on land zoned for multifamily units but occupied by single-family homes, City Administrator John Bramble said.

"Apparently everybody has been misinterpreting the code for a very long time," he said.

Faced with the prospect of having to order landowners to bring their property into compliance--and the legal problems that could arise from such an order--the City Council did the logical thing: it decided to change the law.

"We've got 19 years of precedent," Councilman Ray Johnson said before the council ordered the Planning Department to re-draft the zoning code and examine why it has never been followed. The council reached its decision after angry property owners and real estate developers converged on the Nov. 7 council meeting to urge a change. But several council members later said the practice of adding apartments in back yards has contributed to a population growth that has alarmed some city and school officials.

"We've had unbridled growth," Councilman Jay B. Price said. "The schools, sewer and water systems are going be inadequate if we go on like this."

The zoning discrepancy was discovered by new Planning Director William Phelps, who began studying the code in August.

Under Phelps' interpretation, owners of property in a high-density zone are forbidden from building apartment units where single-family homes exist, unless they tear down the home first. Phelps also said that additions to property that contain duplexes or apartment buildings must conform in design to existing structures.

About 95% of single-family homes in Bell are built on property zoned R-3, or high-density, multifamily residential, Bramble said. Although the staff has not determined the exact number of properties in violation of the code, Bramble said the number "is substantial."

At Phelps' request, the council last month ordered staff members to stop issuing building permits for 45 days so the dilemma could be studied. The council was considering extending the moratorium for 10 months.

Plea to Lift Moratorium

But more than 20 property owners and real estate developers angrily demanded that the council lift the building-permit moratorium and change the ordinance to fit the traditional building practices.

Property owners argued that apartments have been added or are being planned behind their homes to provide income during retirement. They said they sought single-family homes in high-density zones specifically for that purpose.

"I don't think you should make residents put up with an extra burden just because you want to look at things differently," resident Gene Pegero told the council angrily.

"Now you tell us that it's a whole new ballgame," said Russ Cogar, a local real estate broker. "You can't just change the rules in the middle of the ballgame."

City officials say they have been unable to detect how the misinterpretation of the zoning code began, although some speculated that the problem could have arisen when the code was updated in 1969.

"We have always thought R-3 meant you could do anything," Councilman Price said.

City officials, however, could not say whether the old zoning code allowed mixing of different types of housing units in a high-density zone. The updated version does not contain a grandfather clause, so even add-on property built before 1969 would be affected by the current zoning law.

"This has all been rather confusing," Bramble said.

Council Wants Control

During the council meeting, council members fielded angry comments from residents, landowners and developers. Councilman George Cole chided one developer who complained that the city had temporarily halted his plan to build a 12-unit apartment complex.

"Who's going to pay my costs?" the developer asked angrily.

Cole retorted: "We have got to have control. We cannot continue to build 20-unit apartments in the city." Cole later joined other council members in voting to allow the code to be rewritten.

In a telephone interview later in the week, Cole called for tighter control over zoning laws for the city, which has more than 15,000 residents in its 2.8 square miles.

"We can't just keep jamming people in here," Cole said. "We have to decide what standards we have to set."

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