Small-lot ordinance a virtual certainty

In a move that received mixed reaction, a divided Costa Mesa City Council approved on a first vote an ordinance Tuesday that aims to ease restrictions for certain housing developments.

The ordinance is still subject to a second, final vote.

The council majority, developers and a few residents said the Small-Lot Subdivision Ordinance will create home ownership opportunities in Costa Mesa, better utilize available lots and meet housing-market demands.

"Once you get past some of the small misconceptions … it's really cutting-edge," said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger. "It's what every city is going to do."

Critics, including two council members and several longtime residents, contended that because the law encourages additional building, traffic, noise and density will follow.

The ordinance applies to proposed developments of up to 15 dwellings on small land parcels in areas zoned for multifamily units only. Already-approved density levels and parking standards will not be affected.

The Planning Commission examined the ordinance in December and January. The council and commission also discussed the idea together in September.

The commission ultimately recommended that the council approve the ordinance, which it did on a 3-2 vote. Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Wendy Leece dissented.

"It's time that we realize that we are built-out, and we respect the residents," Leece said. "We're smooshing everything and making everything more crowded. It will make things more dense."

Resident Margaret Mooney said there exists an "impetus to have more residents," despite the desire of those already living here to mainting their standard of living.

Added Eastside resident Anna Vrksa: "Is this a city of and for developers? Or is this a city of and for residents?"

Supporters contended that some of the previously approved small-lot developments aided the community because they replaced older rental housing with new, modern housing and improved parking amenities.

The ordinance would be "affecting the economic impact and allowing people to have home ownership and take advantage of this great community that we have," said developer Peter Zehnder.

Once officially approved, Costa Mesa will be the first city in Orange County to have a small-lot ordinance, according to city staff, who said it resembles similar policies in Los Angeles, Napa, Santa Rosa and Oakland.

Small-lot laws are favored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, staff has said.

Recent small-lot subdivisions in Costa Mesa include East Haven on Tustin Avenue in the Eastside. Plans for the 1.24-acre plot call for the building of 14 single-family homes with little space between them. Two 1940s-era houses on the land were torn down to make way for the new development.

Victor Cao, government affairs manager with the Orange County chapter of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said his organization favors the changes.

"We believe Costa Mesa can be a leader in this type of innovation," he said, adding that Costa Mesa and all of Orange County will continue to see population growth in the decades to come.

Peter Naghavi, a former city official who now works as a paid consultant, said the ordinance will greatly aid city staff.

The current conditions are restrictive, he said, and as such, developments need several types of variances and deviations.

It's a "time-consuming and labor-intensive" process to debate the merit of each of them, Naghavi said.

"I'm not saying this ordinance is perfect ... [but] I promise you there are many cities that are currently sitting on the fence, just waiting for a lead city to do this," he added. "They will follow the city of Costa Mesa. Overall, this is a good project for Costa Mesa."

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Alley improvements

Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz said the city continues to improve its alleys and will probably finish the job some two years ahead of schedule.

In 2011, the council directed staff to improve portions of the city's 14.8-mile alley system determined to be in poor condition. The deadline was 2019, Munoz said.

At the start in 2011, 6.1 miles were considered poor. By 2013, the number was whittled to 4.2 miles, Munoz said, and at the current improvement pace, all the improvements should be done by 2017.

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