Council Stands Pat on Business Zoning Issue

A tussle over zoning on Huntington Drive divided the community last week — and, ultimately, the City Council, too. Faced with a discrepancy between the zoning classification and the actual function of six properties along the boulevard, the council voted 3-2 to leave matters as they are, a victory for residents who burst into applause at the decision.
As a result of the non-action, the six properties, which are operated commercially — medical or dental offices, office buildings, tutoring center, etc. — will continue to be zoned residential and will be limited to their specific commercial uses spelled out in variances issued decades ago.
The business owners, who find the use limitations too restrictive and fear devaluation of their parcels, had lobbied for a commercial overlay zone that would have broadened their options.
Vice Mayor Dr. Richard Sun and Councilman Richard Ward were in favor of the overlay, but they came up short in the decision, as Mayor Dr. Allan Yung and Councilmen Dr. Steven Huang and Steve Talt voted to maintain the residential zoning of the six properties and affirm the use variances that have long been in place.
“Personally, I believe if there is no problem, don’t fix it,” Huang said.
The council has been wrestling with this issue for more than two years. The six properties — at 375, 415, 475, 825, 835 and 2233 Huntington Drive — were zoned residential at a time when the city’s landscape was a rural one of orchards and ranches. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, their property owners sought to operate commercial enterprises on them, and were granted use variances for specific businesses.
Many years later, in 2003, the Land Use Element of the city’s General Plan classified the properties as commercial. When a developer proposed to build high-density residences at 415 Huntington Drive in the spring of 2014, he cited this document as his justification. Nearby residents, who wish to maintain the low-density character of their neighborhood, rose in opposition.
State law requires that the zoning and the General Plan classification of the parcels be in agreement, so San Marino has been trying to sort out what City Attorney Steve Dorsey called “a quagmire.”
Throughout the summer, the council was considering amending the General Plan to designate the properties residential. But research by city staff determined that if the General Plan classifications are simply acknowledgements of the commercial uses already in place, no such action is needed. So the council essentially voted to maintain the status quo.
In doing so, it rejected a compromise proposed by the property owners and their representatives.
Kristina Kropp, a lawyer representing all six, laid out a plan in which a commercial overlay zone would be created for the six parcels. The residential zoning would remain, precluding any proposal for condos or other high-density residences, but the commercial options would be expanded. Currently, she argued, “If you try to sell your property and can’t find someone for that particular use, the land is rendered valueless. An overlay would preserve the value and investment of my clients’ properties.”
Sun and Ward agreed that it was a reasonable argument. “We’re here not only to protect the residents; the commercial owners are our stakeholders, too,” Sun said. “It’s very clear to me that those six properties are commercial use. If they are commercial use, they ought to be zoned commercial. There are residents [living] behind those properties, but a commercial overlay would have certain restrictions as to what can be allowed there. Also, the [residential] density would match the surrounding density. The win-win situation is to limit the uses that can have a detrimental effect on residential, and likewise we reduce the density that can be allowed.”
Yung and Talt countered that city records indicate the parcels were always intended to be zoned residential. Talt added that “the No. 1 stated goal of our General Plan is to protect residents.”
Indeed, the Vision Statement of San Marino’s 2003 General Plan declares, in part, “A tradition of excellence in residential living remains a constant.”
What recourse do the business property owners have now? Individually, they can apply to the city to have their parcels zoned commercial, Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes said Monday.
If one of them were to sell a parcel, the new owner could continue a similar operation, since the use variances run with the land. And while the properties at 375, 825 and 835 Huntington Drive have variances that specifically stipulate a medical operation, the others have more latitude, Cervantes said: Their variances specify a professional or executive office. That means an auto repair shop could not go in there, but a realty or investment business probably could.
Cervantes also plans to apply fresh ink to the large zoning map that hangs in the hallway outside his office at City Hall. The 1993 and 2004 zoning maps reviewed by the council last week have inconsistent designations related to the six properties, but on the master map, they will soon be colored as residential parcels. “I’m correcting it based off the evidence I have found,” said Cervantes, who added that the City Council’s decision justifies the update.

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