Council to Sort Out Zoning Discrepancies

Zoning designations enacted a half-century ago in San Marino’s business district are having repercussions today, as the City Council walks a tightrope between discouraging condo-type developments and safeguarding the value of commercial properties.
The matter will be on the agenda for the City Council meeting of Wednesday, July 13, but it might not be resolved then. With Vice Mayor Dr. Richard Sun and Councilman Richard Ward unable to attend, the remnant of three council members could punt this controversial issue to the meeting of Sept. 14, when there’s a greater prospect that a full council will be on hand to decide it.
Such a continuance would mean that a moratorium on development of seven properties in San Marino’s business zone, imposed two years ago, will lapse on July 24, exposing the city to potential challenges by developers over the next few weeks. But officials don’t seem concerned that there will be any negative impacts from an expiration of the moratorium.
The issue of zoning discrepancies in the business district is a convoluted one, which the City Council must untangle before too much more time passes.
Two years ago, a developer sought to build nine high-density residences on the expansive property at 415 Huntington Drive, former site of the corporate offices of East West Bank. The units were to be free-standing, but neighboring homeowners weren’t placated; they saw condos, which otherwise aren’t to be found in San Marino.
Research by the Planning and Building Department subsequently determined that the site was actually zoned residential but had been operating for decades as an office building under a use variance. The Land Use Element of the city’s General Plan, adopted in 2003, designated the property for commercial uses. So a conflict surfaced.
Further digging into city records found six other properties in the business district that had similar discrepancies — zoned residential, operated for many years as medical/dental offices or professional offices, designated commercial in the General Plan. They were at 1635 Chelsea Road and the following Huntington Drive addresses: 375, 475, 825, 835 and 2233.
The City Council set about trying to achieve uniformity between the zoning map and the Land Use map, while also eliminating the risk of condo or apartment development in the city’s business district.
San Marino’s building code allows for residential units at a density of one per 5,000 square feet on property zoned commercial. By contrast, the allowable residential density in the neighborhood around 415 Huntington Drive is one unit per 9,000 square feet.
So, what do you change? The zoning or the General Plan? The council in March chose the General Plan, stipulating that these long-running commercial enterprises now go down in the books as properties that are specified for residential uses. In each case, the existing use variance would carry on, enabling the property owner to continue the current operation.
The Planning Commission unanimously concurred with the decision in its meeting of April 27, Commissioner Howard Brody noting that “the purpose of the request was to correct an inconsistency, and not change the use of the properties.”
The action was a sure way to head off any proposal of mixed-use housing on these properties in San Marino’s business district.
But the affected property owners are pushing back. Several spoke at a council study session two weeks ago, objecting to the proposed change in the General Plan. They will plead their case again whenever the council chooses to take up the matter.
Tom Siciliano, who represents the owner of the medical building at 375 Huntington Drive, cited the “severe negative consequences” that would accompany a residential designation, saying it would diminish the value of the properties.
Even if the use variance is still maintained? “The problem with that is you’re limited to just continuing the existing use,” Siciliano said last week. “This is a medical building. What happens if mom-and-pops can’t make it anymore? You want to do something different with the property, get a different type of user in there. You lose flexibility.”
He added: “Everything we try to do there now has been a hassle because it’s residential. We wanted to put in monument signs. We can’t do it. It’s a small property, and we might like to add on to it. It seems like we’ve been pigeonholed to what we can do there.”
The property owners and representatives expressed frustration on other levels, too. When a given property was purchased, many said, they received written confirmation from the city that they were acquiring a business that was zoned commercial. Only later did they learn that the land was, in fact, zoned residential, and that they were operating with a use variance.
Also, they complained about the fact that none received notification that the matter would be decided on by a governmental body — not for the City Council meeting in March, not for the Planning Commission meeting in April.
At this stage, the owners are not expressing a desire to build mixed-use residences on their properties. “Preserving the integrity of San Marino is of utmost importance,” said Nicolas Tao, owner of 825 Huntington Drive and a 1995 graduate of San Marino High School.
The property owners have simply expressed concern about a potential devaluation of their properties when it comes time to sell.
Siciliano, a real estate broker, said, “On a resale, we would discount the living daylights out of property if it was zoned residential [in a business district].”
City Manager John Schaefer said: “If they’re C-1 (zoned commercial), it means they can do a residential unit, and if they decided tomorrow that they wanted to turn that into a restaurant, they could go through the process to do that. Their variance has a very narrow window of what they could put there. Because they’re [on land zoned] residential, they would fall into the same zoning requirements as the residential properties around them.”
Because of the community’s aversion to condos or apartments in San Marino — expressed vociferously over the past three years — the City Council will be compelled to come up with a solution that discourages that potential development.
Designating these properties as residential in the General Plan, however inconsistent with their longtime uses, is a certain way to achieve that.
One option, raised at the last council meeting, would be to rezone the properties commercial but with qualifying conditions that would limit their uses, so that no high-density developments could be built there and only certain commercial operations could be conducted there.
Still another option, presented by Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes in March and rejected by the council at the time, would be to draw up an ordinance creating an overlay zone, so that the current business uses could be codified. It could be drafted in such a way, he said, so that if anyone ever wanted to develop the land as residential property, the more severe R-1 restrictions on density would apply.
Siciliano said he understands the City Council’s desire to head off mixed-used development in a business area, but that changing the General Plan so that a longstanding medical building is deemed residential is not a sensible solution.
“They’re curing the problem but killing the patient at the same time,” he said.

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