Variance issue moves to Planning Commission

CITY HALL — The City Council on Tuesday appeared willing to continue a policy allowing property owners to seek exceptions from city zoning codes, but the issue of whether to make approval standards more strict for so-called use variances was sent to the Planning Commission for further review.

Use variances are often sought when a property is zoned for a purpose other than what the owner wants to build or operate on the lot. They have historically been used by private schools, hospitals and other service-oriented operations located in or abutting residential zones.

Of the eight use variance applications that have been filed with the Planning Department since 2006, six were approved and two were denied, according to city reports.

Owners of a home on 702 E. Glenoaks Blvd. last year applied for a use variance to operate a business office there but were denied amid intense neighborhood opposition that city officials on Tuesday acknowledged was likely the cause for revisiting the process.

But the City Council was not ready to go as far as the Glendale Homeowners Coordinating Council, an umbrella governing body for the city’s homeowners associations, which in a March resolution called for a complete ban on issuing use variances.

“It’s used sparingly,” Councilman Bob Yousefian said. “In reality, I don’t see a problem with it.”

Banning the use variance policy would force applicants to instead seek a total zoning change for their property and could lead to “spot zoning” throughout the city, Planning Director Hassan Haghani told the council.

While a complete prohibition seemed unlikely, possibly increasing the amount of votes needed to overturn or uphold a use variance once it’s been appealed from the city’s zoning administrator from three to four was billed by some as a compromise.

But even that was met with a lukewarm response from those who felt it would be an unnecessary change to a system that has, by most accounts, worked.

By requiring a supermajority vote, longtime grantees of use variances would be put at greater risk of having their renewals rejected if they fall out of favor with just two members of future city councils, Councilman Ara Najarian said.

“I think that’s really a possibility, and I have a problem with that,” he said.

Currently, zoning changes are given more weight and require a supermajority vote, because in a situation where the zoning is changed from residential to commercial, the property owner can fully build to the new allowable limits with few caveats.

But in granting use variances, the city can attach sometimes more than a dozen conditions that must be met to keep the variance legal.

When the New Horizons Family Center was granted a use variance to allow for a new child-care facility in a medium-density residential zone, the zoning administrator attached 13 conditions, including the requirement that all lighting or sound must be confined to the facility and not disturb neighbors.

The ability to closely control changes of use through conditions is seen by many to be a more than adequate policy for a city where new zoning codes may not completely agree with its old layout.

“If the city is a good custodian, it can work, and it does work,” Haghani said.

Still, the City Council sent the issue to the Planning Commission for further review, especially on the issue of whether to give use variances the same weight as full zoning code changes and require a supermajority vote for approval.

“I think tightening can’t hurt,” Councilman Dave Weaver said.


 JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at jason.wells@latimes.com.

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