Will City Council Keep Status Quo on General Plan?

In wrestling with zoning discrepancies along Huntington Drive, the City Council over the past few months has considered several courses of action. Six properties are zoned residential but have been operating as commercial enterprises for decades. Should the council rezone them commercial … amend the city’s General Plan to designate them residential … create an overlay zone?
In the spirited public discussion that has accompanied this issue, the property owners have howled about potential diminished value of their land and done some legal saber-rattling. Nearby homeowners, nervous about the prospect of high-density condos being built next door, have fought any action that would open the door to high-density development.
As the City Council prepares to take up the matter again at its meeting of Sept. 14 — to be held at the Crowell Public Library because a large crowd is expected for this one — a new option has emerged for the council members:
Do nothing.
That could well be the recommendation of San Marino’s Planning and Building director and its city attorney.
To this point, the process has been driven by a state law requiring that there be some congruence between a city’s zoning ordinance and the Land Use Element of its General Plan. But what, exactly, does that constitute?
Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes conducted some investigation recently and came across an intriguing wrinkle. “I read the law, the government code section that requires consistency between the zoning ordinance and the General Plan,” he said. “… The law specifically says the zoning ordinance must be consistent with the General Plan. Not identical. There’s actually a sentence in our current General Plan that says they don’t have to be identical.”
The six properties in question — the Huntington Drive addresses of 375, 415, 475, 825, 835 and 2233 — were originally zoned residential. Property owners in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s lobbied past councils to operate office buildings, medical or dental practices, or other commercial enterprises on them, and were granted use variances to do so.
Before the city’s current General Plan was adopted in 2003, the Planning Commission acknowledged the residential zoning of the properties but designated them commercial in the General Plan, so that the document would reflect the use variances and what was actually happening on the properties.
“So the General Plan for these six properties identifies them as having commercial uses, and they do,” Cervantes said. “One could argue that the mere fact that those use variances exist, and the fact that the General Plan recognizes that those commercial activities exist, means [the zoning ordinance and the General Plan] are not inconsistent.”
City Attorney Steve Dorsey is checking to see if this will pass legal muster. It’s a critical point, because when the council considered this matter at its July 14 meeting, the room was crawling with lawyers.
The council has been weighing the possibility of reclassifying the parcels from commercial to residential in the General Plan, but allowing the current business operations to continue. This would block a developer from trying to build condo-type residences on them. (San Marino’s building code allows for one residential unit per 5,000 square feet in the commercial zone, a much higher density than in residential neighborhoods.)
Owners and/or representatives of the six properties have strongly objected, saying the residential designation would negatively impact resale value. The matter, however, has been clouded by confusion: During the public hearings at recent council meetings, several owners seemed to be under the mistaken impression that they would no longer be able to operate their current businesses there; that is not the case.
Some of the property owners and Rob Glushon, a lawyer representing all six, recently met with city staff to outline how they’d like the council to rule on the issue.
“What we’re hoping the council will do at its upcoming meeting,” Glushon said this week, “is consider the option of instructing staff to prepare an amendment to the zoning code that would essentially prohibit the kind of high-density residential development that nearly everyone opposes.”
He said the property owners wish to have their parcels classified as commercial in the General Plan, with the hope of getting them rezoned commercial as well — either through a sweeping decree by the City Council or individual applications by the owners.
The current arrangement is limiting, Glushon added. The use variances are confined to a narrow definition. What if the owner of a dental office wants to sell to a realty firm five years from now? Under that current conditions, that would not be allowed. “It ties their hands,” he said. “… It severely impacts potential use and the value of these properties.”
Glushon said that if the housing density requirements are raised — say, from one unit per 5,000 square feet to one unit per 9,000 square feet — it would head off the condo concern of the neighbors and clear the way for a wider range of potential commercial operations at each site.
This controversy first arose two years ago when a developer sought to build a cluster of homes at 415 Huntington Drive, site of a vacant office complex that formerly housed the corporate headquarters of East West Bank. Residents adjacent to the property objected, and the proposal was ultimately withdrawn.
But the development bid exposed the discrepancy between zoning and the General Plan for that property, and eventually for the other five on Huntington Drive. The City Council has been trying to sort it out ever since.
Precedent could be on the side of neighboring homeowners who wish to maintain the residential designations of the properties, however. Throughout San Marino’s business zones, alleys and other buffers exist between nearly all commercial operations and the homes that border them. But no such alleys run behind these six properties.
Also, officials conducting research at City Hall found that as far back as the 1940s, owners of the properties sought to have them rezoned commercial. The councils at the time rejected the zoning change and came up with the idea of a use variance as a compromise.
Similarly, when the Planning Commission was discussing the General Plan before its adoption in 2003, minutes of the meetings show that commission members specifically said they were not considering rezoning the properties, but rather were simply reclassifying them in the General Plan so that it would reflect their current uses.
“If the council agrees with that,” Cervantes said, “there’s no reason to make any changes, period, other than changing the clerical errors on the zoning map that shows that these properties are in a commercial zone.”

The City Council meeting of Sept. 14 will be held at 6 p.m. in the Barth Community Room of the Crowell Public Library.
Local resident Michele Lumley is circulating a petition in support of maintaining the residential zoning of the six properties. It can be found at: ipetitions.com/petition/petition-against-zone-changes-on-huntington-drive.

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