Letters from Preserve Sierra Madre and from Residents
From Preserve Sierra Madre to former Mayor John Harabedian
Dear Former Mayor Harabedian:
On behalf of the Preserve Sierra Madre coalition, we would like to offer our congratulations to the well-deserved accolades you received tonight from the community for your leadership as the Mayor of Sierra Madre.
Since the inception of the Preserve Sierra Madre coalition, you were the Mayor, and we must tell you and remind our supporters, that you were outstanding in your efforts at advancing the cause of preservation.
Under your leadership and with your vote, the City Council had the following major accomplishments relating to that cause:
1. Enacting the Building and Water Meter Moratoriums.
2. Improving the Land-use portion of the 1996 General Plan which goes far towards preserving the small-town character of our village in the foothills.
3. Overturning the Planning Commission's approval of the first house at One arter/Stonegate giving the community a chance to get a project up there that we can be proud of.
4. Enacting the demolition moratorium and later the demolition ordinance.
5. Working with the Planning Commission's recent recommendations to improve the Municipal Code so that we can end up with reasonable rules in place that help preserve our town.
It was no accident that all of these successes happened during your tenure as Mayor. You always came to the City Council meetings well-prepared as you led the City Council in thoughtful deliberations about the various issues that came before the Council. You were also more than patient in hearing the public comments, listening to your constituents and conducting yourself as a true gentleman at all times.
For that, we offer our gratitude and appreciation for a job well done.
Steering Committee, Preserve Sierra Madre
From Preserve Sierra Madre to all supporters:
There can no greater display of a City Council and the residents of a community performing their civic duty than what occurred at last night's (January 13, 2015) City Council Meeting which ended with a standing ovation from a jam-packed City Council chamber. Sierra Madre's very own City Council resisted the threats from the developer of One Carter/Stonegate and their lawyer and courageously voted to over-turn the decision of the Planning Commission and deny approval for the first house at One Carter. It was a stunning victory for the fast-growing preservation movement in Sierra Madre.
Each City Council Member has our eternal gratitude for their courage and for their support of our efforts. The video from that meeting should be required viewing for every resident of Sierra Madre, and everyone who hopes to be a resident someday, so that people can see first-hand why there is no other city like Sierra Madre. We can all take pride in our City Council, all those who wrote the City Council, all those who attended the meeting last night and showed their support by their presence and in every citizen who one by one strode to the podium to eloquently and passionately speak from the heart about what this little town means to them and why its worth saving.
January 15, 2015 from John C. Hutt to the Planning Commission re R-1 Conditional Use Permit (CUP) thresholds.
January 15, 2015
Planning Commission City of Sierra Madre Sierra Madre, CA 91024
Re: Discussion Item #1 R-1 CUP Threshold
Dear Chair and Planning Commissioners:
I am pleased that the Planning Commission is revisiting this issue and urge you to take action to lower the CUP threshold in the R-1 zone. Better guidance for good design is also needed. While fulsome design guidelines for suprathreshold projects may need to wait for future consideration, please augment the CUP findings now to require better design.
As discussed in my prior letter on this issue (a copy of which is attached for your reference as Exhibit A), I believe a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate and that the CUP cutoff should be based on neighborhood considerations (as approximated by the various R-1 subzones). Additionally, based on the discussion in the prior public hearing, I believe there should be a separate cutoff for lot size. I support the 30% floor area limit suggested in Preserve Sierra Madre's letter for this purpose rather than a straight reduction of allowable floor area. Attached as Exhibit B is my suggested revisions to SMMC § 17.20.135 to implement these paired cutoffs.
In my prior letter and at your prior meeting I already discussed why I think a stepped approach is preferable to a one-size-fits-all approach. I won't belabor the point further here, but let me provide one example. The recently built house at 190 North Lima Street in my opinion is problematic. It features a bland design that looks like it belongs in a tract subdivision and is much larger than, and visually over powers, its neighbors. Yet it totals 2,721 square feet. Less than the existing 4,000 square foot cutoff or even the proposed 3,000 square foot threshold. Because its lot is very narrow but long (50 x 200), it is big enough that it would fall under the 30% lot size test proposed by Preserve Sierra Madre. However, it is located in the R-1 subzone (i.e., with 7,500 minimum lot size), so under my proposed neighborhood-based cutoffs, it would have required a CUP.
Even if the CUP threshold is triggered though, we don't have many tools to require proposals to be well designed. As much as I would like a full set of design guidelines, I understand that such is not feasible in the current term. Therefore, I suggest you add an additional CUP finding requiring exceptional design for suprathreshold projects. My suggested language is attached as Exhibit C.
Finally, I'd like to suggest that you consider revising some related code sections, either now if feasible or in the near term. Namely, 1) eliminating or greatly reducing the minimum floor area required by SMMC § 17.20.130, and 2) reducing the amount of floor area allowed under SMMC § 17.52.120 on hillside lots based on how much of such lot is in each slope category.
The minimum floor area required by SMMC § 17.20.130 is 1,250 square feet for the primary residence; add 400 square feet of garage for required parking for a total of 1,650 square feet. Not much of a window between the minimum and maximum (especially if the proposed 30% test is adopted – for a 6,000 square foot lot, there would be only 150 square feet separating the minimum and maximum). Further, I'm not sure what policy objective this rule promotes. Why not let people build small houses if they want them? Deleting or greatly reducing the minimum floor area should be something you can do without extensive study. Changing the method for calculating allowable hillside square footage, on the other hand, will take more study, but I recommend that you add this to your considerable list of things to revise in our zoning code.
Thank you for your consideration.
Very truly yours,
John C. Hutt
The 4,000 square foot CUP threshold in the R-1 zone is not adequately protecting Sierra Madre from out-of-scale McMansions. We should lower the threshold, but rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all approach, the threshold should be set at appropriate levels for the various R-1 sub-zones. Additionally, revised procedures for review of, and augmented design guidelines for, suprathreshold projects should be considered in the future.
Many of the newer homes and home additions built in town strike me and others as simply being too big – not based on complicated formulas or legalist theory, rather the simple intuition or gut-feeling that they don't fit in. Good design can mask the appearance of bulk and massing and reduce its direct impact on neighbors to some extent, but at some point, no matter how well designed, a house can just be too large for its surroundings. The current CUP threshold has prevented some egregious projects, but too many are still being built, especially in neighborhoods in which smaller homes predominate.
Lowering the threshold from 4,000 to 3,000 square feet will help alleviate a number of these issues. However, in neighborhoods with smaller houses and lots, the 3,000 square foot threshold would still allow a number of out-of-scale houses be built without heightened review. Unfortunately, it will also clog City Hall with additional CUP hearings for non-problematic houses on large lots. Instead, at the public hearing for extending the water moratorium the City Council suggested a stepped threshold. I wholeheartedly concur.
A stepped threshold would best be based on zoning rather than individual lot size. A large house on a large lot might be built without CUP review only to have the lot split at a later date. Section 17.20.080 of the Sierra Madre Municipal Code sets forth four R-1 subzones based on minimum lot size ranging from 7,500 square feet to 15,000 square feet. Each R-1 neighborhood is designated as one of these four subzones on the City Zoning Map.
I suggest the CUP threshold for each of these four subzones should be based on the minimum lot sizes and the corresponding maximum floor area that could be built on such lot pursuant to SMMC Section 17.20.125. See the table below.
subzone minimum lot size max area on min lot 90%of max area CUP cutoff
R-1 7,500 2,625 2,363 2,400
R-1-9 9,000 3,150 2,835 2,850
R-1-11 11,000 3,850 3,465 3,500
R-1-15 15,000 4,450 4,005 4,000
As you can see from in the above table, the current 4,000 square foot CUP threshold is approximately 90% of the maximum floor area that can be built on a 15,000 square foot lot under 17.20.125. I suggest we leave this threshold in place for the R-1-15 subzone and adopt a separate threshold for each subzone at approximately 90% of the maximum floor area that can be built on each minimum lot size. This would create setting-appropriate thresholds and prevent houses that are out-of-scale for their neighborhood.
The stepped threshold also helps prevent the opposite problem: setting a threshold that is too low. Not only will a low threshold catch a number of reasonably-sized houses in the CUP process, it will also have the unintended result of increasing house sizes on large lots. A house just under 4,000 square feet may well be acceptable to many R-1-15 property owners. However, if the 3,000 square foot limit is adopted, many of these property owners will opt to go through the CUP process. And once they are subjected to a CUP, there will be little to restrain them from asked for the maximum floor area allowed. That translates, for example, to a 4,450 square foot house on a 15,000 square foot lot, or 5,200 square feet on a 20,000 square foot lot.
Whatever level you lower the CUP threshold to, any reduction will subject more projects to heightened review, filling up Planning Commission agendas and taking staff time. This may not become a problem for so long as the water moratorium is in place, but it will be eventually. This shouldn't deter heightened protection of our town. Rather it should lead us to investigate alternate procedures that provide protection at a lower cost in City resources. Perhaps a design review commission makes sense. Another alternative is that the Planning Director could make the initial determination on suprathreshold projects (after standard CUP noticing of course), which could then be appealed by the applicant or neighbors, or called up for further review by the Planning Commission, if someone didn't agree with the Director's determination.
Finally, as helpful as instituting lower, stepped CUP thresholds will be, we need to remember that the CUP threshold doesn't really trigger much in the way of stringent review. All it does is subject a project to the three additional findings set forth in SMMC Section 17.60.041. There are no formulas for comparing the project's floor area to that of the existing houses in the neighborhood (or the project's height, lot coverage, design, building materials, etc.). There are no design guidelines. There are no architectural examples. There are no “this/ not this” illustrations. There are no references to state, federal or architectural trade group standards, guidelines or rules.
I realize that formulating a good working set of design guidelines to be used for CUP review of suprathreshold projects is a tall order, and by no means do I suggest that we hold up setting appropriate thresholds while we develop such guidelines. However, this is not a can we should perennially kick down the road. We very much should make it a goal to have a set of residential design guidelines in place by the time the water moratorium expires. Additionally, having workable design guidelines will facilitate project review unlike our current ad hoc process which by its nature hinders review.
In summary, I urge you to adopt a set of stepped thresholds appropriate for each R-1 subzone in the very near future. Then turn toward streamlining the review process and formulating residential design guidelines.
Proposed Revisions to SMMC § 17.20.135
17.20.135 - Gross floor area. - New Construction and Additions Onto Existing Structures. Where the gross floor area of all structures is greater than four thousand square feet the threshold amount indicated in either table below, a conditional use permit pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 17.60 shall be required.
Lot Area (square feet – SF) Threshold Building Floor Area
Under 6,000sf 1,800 sf
6,000 – 11,000 sf 30% of lot area
Over 11,000 sf 3,300 sf +10% of area over 11,000 sf
Lot Subzone Threshold Building Floor Area
R-1 2,400 sf
R-1-9 2,850 sf
R-1-11 3,500 sf
R-1-15 4,000 sf
Proposed Revisions to SMMC § 17.60.041
17.60.041 - Additional burden of proof for permits for single-family houses as described in Section 17.20.025.
Additional burdens of proof for permits for single-family houses as described in Section 17.20.025 shall be:
A. That the proposed project be designed in one consistent style and the height, bulk, scale and mass of new construction and reconstruction be compatible with the existing neighborhood and the surroundings.
B. That the proposed project reflects the scale of the neighborhood in which it is proposed and that it does not visually overpower or dominate the neighborhood and is not ill-proportioned so as to produce either architecture or design that detracts from the foothill village setting and does not cause adverse impacts.
C. That the conditional use permit is required to accommodate design features which are characteristic of an identifiable architectural style or a coherent architectural design that is consistent on all sides of the building.
Delete the following section: D. That the proposed project exhibit exceptional design through the use of some combination of innovative or noteworthy architecture, adaptive reuse or other preservation of historic resources, siting of structures in keeping with the land and to maximize neighbor privacy and views, quality building materials, and similar concepts.
January 14, 2015 from Caroline Brown to the Planning Commissioners
January 14, 2015
Dear Planning Commissioners;
I fully support the letter you received from Preserve Sierra Madre regarding many issues that you are working on. We want to keep Sierra Madre from becoming overrun with the gigantic, gargantuan and grandiose houses that we see being built on lots where already large, by Sierra Madre standards, houses are being demolished in Arcadia in the Highland Oaks and Singing Oaks residential areas.
I served on the Canyon Zone and we were successful in preserving the traditions of the early settlers and builders in that neighborhood with several important measures, namely the floor area ratio for these small lots and the second story setback with the building envelope. I believe you have already added this city wide for the second story but with excessively large lots, very large houses can be built that would not be complimentary to the aesthetics and traditions of the neighborhood.
There was a time when living in the outdoors and the yard space around the house was of great value and that is reflected in even our largest and most stately homes on large lots. This aesthetic is core to the look of Sierra Madre. It is imperative that you reduce the allowable house size that would be exempt from a CUP so that better controls against over building are in place as well as reduce the automatic FAR that allows over building as well.
Years ago an area was subdivided in North Claremont into very large parcels with the thinking that more open space would remain on each lot but there were no controls in place for this ratio to occur. Those lot today each sport large mansions so that the area has no relationship to the rest of the community.
Something similar happened to the Jamison Estate, those houses built between Highland and Grandview, where lots larger than the minimum 15,000 square feet were created but the houses were built out so that you do not get the feel that you are in an area of larger lots. The Jamison Estate plan, in the mid 1980's followed the same thinking that occurred in the Nutzel Tract, above Grandview between Camillo and Valle Verde, in the late 1960's where the city required the lots to exceed the minimum 15,000 sq ft. The houses built did nothing to respect the larger lots except to cover more ground with larger houses.
As we all face decreasing natural resources, most notably the availability of water, it is imperative that we build smaller on all of our lots in Sierra Madre and not waste the resources of existing houses by bulldozing them into the landfill resulting in the use of new building materials. Reuse of existing houses with modernization is important to sustaining the City of Sierra Madre.
Caroline and Roger Brown, Alta Vista Dr.
44-year residents of Sierra Madre Canyon