Ed. note: This version of the story was updated Feb. 13 to revise a paragraph that had incorrectly referred to “homes” rather than “lots.”
By: CJ Dablo
Next week, the Long Beach Planning Commission will take another look at what makes a “McMansion,” an oversized home that can overshadow its smaller neighbors, but they won’t have much time to mull it over. Time is running out on a controversial moratorium that affects the exclusive feel in the areas of the Los Cerritos and Virginia Country Club neighborhoods in Long Beach. In 2015 the city council approved that moratorium to limit new home building and additions that would exceed 1,500 square feet in order to address local residents’ concerns over mega-sized homes that were being constructed.
The Planning Commission heard from residents on both sides of the issue on Feb. 2 but requested that they continue to address the issue at next week’s Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 16. The staff would be expected to work with the residents on the issue of home size.
Since the moratorium is due to expire on March 31, city staff, residents and ultimately the city council don’t have much time to continue to wade through the details of new development standards that were meant to address the so-called “mansionization” effect.
At the city’s Planning Commission meeting last week, city staff presented five recommendations to change the development standards unique to the zone designated as “R-1-L” located in the Los Cerritos and Virginia Country Club neighborhoods. The recommendations covered frontyard setback, second-story side setback, corner-lot setback, lot mergers and floor-area ratios.
This setback deals with the minimum required distance from the front of the property line of the home to the nearest exterior wall of its building. Right now, the minimum standard for the frontyard setback is at 20 feet. The staff of the Planning Bureau recommended that it be changed to a 25-foot minimum.
Second-story side setback
This requirement deals with the distance between the exterior wall of a building and the side property line. Right now, two-story homes that are 25 feet high could be built with a side setback of 12 feet, according to a Planning Bureau staff report. This current standard presented worries of privacy between neighbors as well as concerns that the larger homes would cut off light and air to smaller homes that are adjacent to them. The staff made specific recommendations for homes on lot sizes that exceed 60 feet in width. Currently the two-story homes have a minimum setback of 6 feet for that upper story, but according to the presentation by the Planning Bureau staff, if the lot exceeds that 60-foot width, the new standard would be “15 percent of lot width or 10 feet, whichever is greater.”
Right now, houses that are built on lots on the corner of two streets have a minimum setback of 6 feet from the streets. The Planning Bureau staff recommended that the minimum setback be increased to 10 feet.
Currently there is no maximum limit on the lot sizes. The staff had proposed that no more than two lots could be merged together, with a limited size of 20,000 square feet.
The floor-area ratio (FAR) is a number calculated on the gross floor area of the building divided by the gross area of the entire lot size. For instance, a home that is 6,000 square feet on a 10,000-square-foot lot would have a ratio of .60.
For lots that are 15,000 square feet or less, the current maximum FAR is .60. The staff recommended that it be reduced to a FAR of .50. For lots that are larger than 15,000 square feet, the current maximum FAR is .60. The staff recommended a FAR maximum of .40.
Mark Hungerford, a Planning Bureau staff member, presented his department’s recommendations at the Feb. 2 meeting.
“No one, single amendment to the R-1-L development standards will address the community’s concerns about scale and openness and light and air and privacy,” he stated to the Planning Commission, “but staff’s amendments, as a group, target the types of developments that we’ve heard have the most effect on the neighborhood. We feel that proposed amendments balance community concerns with the development rights of homeowners and respect the unique intent of the R-1-L zone.”
These standards were not sufficient for several residents who spoke at the Planning Commission meeting last week. Stacy McDaniel is an acting chair of the Committee to Preserve Los Cerritos, a neighborhood advocacy group. She criticized these recommendations because they were not strict enough and did not fully address the mansionization problem. McDaniel said the proposed amendments do not effectively control overall home size. In a follow-up phone interview, she stated that home sizes should be no more than 6,500 to 7,500 square feet.
She criticized those who wanted no regulation, declaring that elimination of rules would “damage the existing neighborhoods.”
McDaniel said that her group had formed a petition that has so far collected about 300 signatures. She explained that in comparison to other cities, like Sierra Madre, which she said had fought against mansionization and saved its home values, Long Beach could do more.
“Part of the problem is that we have very loose regulations compared to many other cities in the Southland that have confronted the mansionization threat,” McDaniel said, “and basically our regulations are anachronistic.”
McDaniel’s neighbor, Polly Thomas, does not agree. She also appeared at the commission meeting last week and offered her own insights on the staff recommendation. Thomas also disliked the recommendations…because they were too strict.
“Everyone wants to make their home their own,” Thomas said, “and I just think that that is an opportunity that should be afforded to everyone.”
She said she felt that these recommendations were limiting homeowners’ rights. Thomas also noted the unique character of the neighborhoods and how many of the homes built on unusual lot configurations couldn’t be duplicated anymore.
“This will have a chilling effect on imagination and the designs by architects,” she concluded.
The staff had also made recommendations for development standards that would affect large single-family homes in other zones throughout the city. Ultimately, the Planning Commission is expected to make only a recommendation to the city council for any zoning changes related to the R-1-L zone and new development standards for new large single-family homes.
Planning Bureau Manager Linda F. Tatum sent a statement to the Signal Tribune to explain that the city code has provisions for protecting “existing nonconforming” structures. These include completed homes that, if the proposed standards are adopted, would not conform to the new proposed standards. The Signal Tribune asked Tatum whether these homes would enjoy a “grandfathered” status.
“Any legal nonconforming structure may continue to be used and maintained, in accordance with the provisions of this section of the code,” Tatum said in her statement. “Further, no ‘grandfathering’ recommendation is necessary, as this code provision provides automatic protection of legal nonconforming structures. A home would only be affected if the homeowner chose to modify their property in a manner that was inconsistent with the adopted standard.”