Spreading the Word on Building Projects

Residents of San Marino will be less likely to have monstrous building projects sneak up on them in their neighborhoods, following action last week by the City Council.
The council moved forward on an ordinance that will give neighbors more notification about public hearings related to a given building project, and stipulated that the construction applicant sign, under penalty of perjury, a document stating that he or she made reasonable attempts to alert nearby residents about what is proposed. Along the same lines, the applicant would be required to produce a streetscape showing how the project compares in height and mass to the homes around it.
The action stemmed from a joint session of the City Council and the Design Review Committee in January. It was noted at that meeting that some residents come forward after the bulldozers roll and the walls come down, saying they were never told that a teardown and a major home reconstruction was planned for their street.
Currently, a mailing is only sent to residents in the legal neighborhood — generally, five homes across the street, two on each side, three in the rear — before the project’s first public hearing. If there are continuances, or if an approval is appealed to the Planning Commission or the City Council, it is incumbent upon the neighbors to keep up with the changing events.
The new ordinance will require that new notifications go out for each successive hearing. The mailings will provide 10 days’ notice for any application that adds square footage or seeks to build a new or replacement home, and three days’ notice for all other matters going before the Design Review Committee.
The city also plans to come up with a stamp for the envelope to alert residents to the importance of the contents. “People get mail, they think it’s junk mail and they throw it out,” City Attorney Steve Dorsey said. “Some cities put something on the envelope that says it’s important information about design review in your neighborhood.”
The streetscape requirements were broadened at last week’s meeting. Originally, the plan was to show a mock-up of the proposed new home as it related to one house on each side and one in the rear. Now it’s two on each side and three in the rear.
The council considered a provision that would require the applicant to get signatures of homeowners in the legal neighborhood asserting that they had reviewed the plans of the proposed project. But it was felt this might create an unfair burden on the applicant, since some people might decline to sign in the hope that it holds up the project. Councilman Richard Ward said he favored a penalty-of-perjury statement claiming reasonable attempts to notify neighbors had been made, and his colleagues on the council agreed.
The council decided to take a wait-and-see approach on updating its ordinance prohibiting artificial turf in front yards, and will allow Planning and Building staff to make approvals on a case-by-case basis.
The issue comes to the fore because of Assembly Bill 1164, passed last fall, which prohibits California cities from enforcing ordinances that outlaw fake grass — or restrict it in a way that would make it overly expensive to install.
Currently, San Marino’s code dictates that any area of a front yard that is not driveway or walkway must “be covered with a properly maintained vegetative growth or plant material.”
Under the provisions of the new law, a homeowner could come to the city proposing to install a front yard of artificial turf and “I don’t think we have the grounds to deny it,” Dorsey said.
The council considered coming up with a list of approved materials, much as it does for roofing and windows, so as to make sure that any artificial turf used here is of high quality, with long, green blades of plastic that better resemble the real thing. “I don’t necessarily want to encourage the use of substandard products and make front yards look like the old Astrodome,” Councilman Steve Talt said.
But Dorsey raised concerns about restrictions “that would substantially increase the cost,” which the law prohibits.
Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes said that any proposal to install artificial turf in a front yard “is not a rubber stamp at the counter. We make strong recommendations as to what kind of materials we’d like to see.”
The council decided to hold off on rewriting its ordinance and deal with requests as they come up — which isn’t often, according to a staff report. This will provide time to see how other cities are handling the matter, and whether any legal challenges succeed in limiting the law’s scope.
Any hope of converting San Marino’s boulevard medians to drought-tolerant landscapes seemed as dead as a parched petunia in December, when a deadlock vote in the council caused San Marino to miss a deadline for $38,688 in turf-removal rebates from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
But the issue was revived last week. The MWD is providing rebates of $1 per square foot, rather than the $2 it previously offered, and Councilman Richard Ward and Vice Mayor Dr. Richard Sun said they want city staff to look into reapplying.
Sun was absent from the November council meeting; had he been there to vote in the affirmative, the allocation of $38,688 for median conversions would have gone forward (the city then would have been reimbursed with the rebate money). Ward missed the December meeting, resulting in a 2-2 vote that effectively killed the rebate bid. New Councilmen Talt and Dr. Steven Huang were opposed to San Marino participating in the program.
Last week, Ward, Sun and Mayor Dr. Allan Yung all voiced support for city staff pursuing a new rebate application. If they want to see a median conversion go forward, they’ll just have to make sure they’re all on the council dais at the same time when it’s on the agenda.
As the council received a mid-year review of the 2015-16 fiscal-year budget from Finance Director Lisa Bailey, the primary objection to her figures was a projected increase in city revenues of 3% per year going forward. Talt and Sun both cited a slower real estate market, and wondered if that annual estimate should be more conservative. (Property taxes make up about half of San Marino’s revenues.)
City Manager John Schaefer responded Monday, producing a table that shows variances in San Marino’s unrestricted revenues over the past 15 years. While revenues did dip .3% from 2015 to 2016, the average annual increase over the past 15 years has been 4.5%, his figures show. The assessed valuation of San Marino’s real estate, meanwhile, has climbed at an average rate of 5.8% per year over the same period.
• Sun, expressing alarm at the increase in crime in San Marino in 2015 and a couple of recent home invasion incidents, asked that the Making San Marino Better List include a plan by Police Chief John Incontro “to reduce crime or prevent it. I’d like to see something more comprehensive.”
• Scott Kwong, a young businessman who ran for City Council last fall, was appointed to serve on the Board of Trustees for the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District. His term will be for two years.

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