On Tuesday night, the city council unanimously approved an urgency ordinance to grant design review for homes that are two or more stories with additions of more than 40 percent of the gross floor area.
Under current laws, if such projects are found to be consistent with existing zoning regulations, they need only request a building permit. Such process permits “no city discretionary review or neighbor notification.” There is, as this indicates, no noticing to the neighbors.
There were a number of public commenters even late in the evening on Tuesday and they pointed to two projects of particular concern – 525 Oak Avenue and 201 Russell Boulevard, which was recently approved and met all of the current regulations, but was massive and the noticing was insufficient.
Among the concerns was that the neighbors had no recourse under existing rules – that included no right to public appeal to either the Planning Commission or City Council, prior to the council approving this ordinance.
As City Planner Eric Lee pointed out with regard to the 201 Russell Blvd. project, “This project was a two-story addition to an existing house.”
According to the project information they are adding roughly 2100 square feet to an existing home that is already decent size at nearly 1700 square feet. The total size will be nearly 3800 square feet and expand the parking requirements to two covered and four uncovered.
Eric Lee explained, “The point we would make with this one is that it was a ministerial building permit and did not require any special planning application or review because it met all the necessary zoning and development standards.”
He added, “There was no mechanism requiring additional review, but now with the urgency ordinance something like this would be subject to the design review process requirement outlined in it.”
Meanwhile, the 525 Oak Ave. project did come to the Planning Commission in August. That is when it was essentially an 18-room house on two parcels back to back. It is a strange configuration with the parcels being front to back and the “back lot is currently landlocked.”
At the time neighbors expressed concerns about the project, “specifically the intent to target students and UCD workers as residents of the project.”
The Planning Commission also reportedly expressed concerns about the project and it was dropped.
The staff report for the Planning Commission noted the following factors that brought the project forward to a review process.
First, because of the proposed 1192 square foot detached three bedroom/ three bathroom ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) on the front lot, which required an Administrative Use Permit.
It also required a conditional use permit to allow the construction of the duplex on the back lot.
Third, it required a variance to “allow development on the back lot without the required street frontage. The applicant proposes to record a shared access easement to provide access to the front and back lots.”
Fourth, there is a design review in this case, because the FAR (floor area ratio) on the back lot is 48.5 percent, exceeding the maximum permitted by the current zoning.
Finally, a Certificate of Compliance is required to allow each lot to be developed separately.
However, some noted that existing rules allowed this project to come forward to the Planning Commission. While that application was not formally withdrawn they are exploring but have not submitted plans for a new site proposal – for a five-bedroom house to be developed on each lot with a two-bedroom ADU – for a total of 14 units.
As Community Development Director Ashley Feeney explained, “They were exploring coming back with two five-bedroom homes and two two-bedroom ADUs that would have been an over-the-counter ministerial review with no notice.”
However, with the urgency ordinance in effect, “(such a project) would require a design review application per the recently adopted urgency ordinance.”
We don’t want to have all of the additions covered,” Asley Feeney explained at the council meeting. “We wanted to go ahead and capture larger additions… Really looking at the additions that cause the most concerns. Forty percent is the sweet spot where we will have the design review.”
Mr. Feeney explained, “Neighborhood noticing and due process” is “really the chief concern when neighbors are surprised by new construction, especially when it’s large and out of scale.”
The key to this ordinance, then, is it gives staff the opportunity to review and for the neighbors to have due process rights that allows such proposals to go to the Planning Commission and even the council.
As Councilmember Lucas Frerichs pointed out, this is an issue that is not about students at all, it is about “quality of life in neighborhoods.” These proposals for huge additions and huge amounts of additional rooms were out of proportion with the rest of the neighborhood.
“There is a need for more scrutiny for these large expansions,” he said. “There might not be more than 20 a year, but the ones that have been coming in are in definite need of additional scrutiny.”
He also pointed out that most of these are happening only in a few central neighborhoods most immediately adjacent to the university.
Councilmember Dan Carson reiterated that this was not intended to impact students.
He explained, “We’ve worked hard to get city and voter approval for 4000 rental units in this town, we’ve worked hard with the university to get 5000 additional on-campus units in just the next five to six years. We care about providing housing for students, and our citizens in general, but we need to be careful about the impacts in our neighborhood.”
He said that “there’s no denying they have quality of life impacts.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting