Commission scrutinizes height rule changes

The Planning Commission is considering whether to recommend changes to city ordinances in order to allow underground parking in commercial or light industrial zones without leading to outsized commercial buildings.

A draft of the changes was reviewed at the Oct. 24 meeting, but the commission wanted more information before making a decision on whether to amend city zoning codes and the local coastal plan pertaining to mansionization.

The City Council asked the commission and staff to review and make recommendations that would reduce the confusion that has arisen when height restrictions in ordinances related to mansionization in residential zones are applied to commercial or light industrial buildings, which was never considered when the ordinances were passed.

“We want to take a look at some examples before recommending approval to the council to make sure changes do not lead to commercial mansionization,” Commissioner Norm Grossman said.


“The question is how to balance mass against increased pedestrian ambience.”

The commission has asked architects to draw illustrations of impacts on projects.

“We want three dimensional drawings so the commission can see what we are talking about and show them to council and the public,” Commissioner Anne Johnson said.

The proposed changes also included a redefinition of how to measure height, but no increases in the height as measured by feet are contemplated, Grossman said.


“And it is important to note that the Design Review Board trumps the legislation,” Johnson said.

Amendments to the zoning code related to mansionization were approved by the council in November 2002. Those amendments included a revised method of measuring a building height, which is now generally measured from the lowest floor level surface to the highest point of the roof, according to the staff report written by Community Development Director John Montgomery.

The new height measuring method works well for residential structures, but there has been some confusion and unintended consequences when it is applied to structures in commercial or industrial zones, Montgomery advised the commission.

“For instance, this method penalizes the use of an underground parking structure and includes roofs and mechanical equipment enclosures such as elevator shafts in the height calculation, which has undesirable aesthetic implications,” Montgomery said.

The exception to the new method of measurement is for floor levels that are completely underground.

If there is an outside access, in which case the area is called “daylighted,” the level is considered a story.

A North Coast Highway project, which was recently recommended for approval by the commission, required a variance for the underground parking, because the access was taken off of downhill Cliff Drive, which made it a third story. The variance was justified, commissioners said, since the access on Cliff Drive was much safer than access off of the highway.

Under the changes contemplated, the underground parking proposed for that project would have been permitted.


The variance did not sit well with some council members and residents, who opposed approval of the project at the council meeting, although opposition at the commission hearings was almost nil, Grossman said.

Village Laguna representatives said the project was too big and likely to set a precedent.

Founding Village Laguna President Arnold Hano said he could not comment on the proposed changes until he looked into it further.

“I wish I had been at the commission hearing,” Hano said.

The council, minus the presence of Kelly Boyd at the Oct. 16 meeting, was divided on the issue of the variance, but voted 4-0 to kick the project back to the commission with instructions that included reducing the mass and scale, preserving more neighbors’ views and adding more green space.

The commission hearing on the proposed ordinance changes will resume Dec. 12. For more information, visit and click on the agenda for the Oct. 24 meeting.