CITY OF RANCHO PALOS VERDES
JULY 22, 2003
CALL TO ORDER
The meeting was called to order by Chairman Long at 7:04 p.m. at the Fred Hesse Community Room, 29301 Hawthorne Boulevard.
Commissioner Tomblin led the assembly in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Present: Commissioners Cartwright, Duran Reed, Lyon, Tomblin, Vice Chairman Mueller, Chairman Long. Commissioner Cote arrived at 7:45 p.m.
Also present were Director of Planning, Building, and Code Enforcement Rojas, Associate Planner Blumenthal, Associate Planner Schonborn, Assistant Planner Yu, Assistant Planner Luckert, City Geologist James Lancaster, and Recording Secretary Peterson.
APPROVAL OF AGENDA
Commissioner Tomblin moved to modify the agenda to hear items 4, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7, seconded by Commissioner Duran Reed. There being no objection, it was so ordered.
Director/Secretary Rojas reported that at the last City Council the City Council discussed the issue of the application of the City’s 16-foot height limit and reaffirmed the 16-foot by right height limit and directed that a code amendment be initiated to make it more explicit in the Code. They also requested a code amendment be initiated to allow the decision making bodies to consider structures below 16 feet when there is a height variation application involved. Given this direction together with the Planning Commission’s previous direction to staff regarding the comprehensive staff report, he stated that it was staff’s intent to proceed with the previously requested report but only on the issues the City Council had not discussed or given direction on at their meeting. He stated that the two issues to be included in the report as needing Commission direction were the application of the grading finding regarding view and if the view is to be taken from the viewing area or from any portion of the structure. He stated that this report would be presented to the Planning Commission, as well as the requested code amendment language at the August 26 Planning Commission.
Director/Secretary Rojas distributed an invitation to a zoning seminar and copies of an exchange of e-mails between Chairman Long and himself regarding the 10-foot issue.
Chairman Long stated that he had a conversation with the Mayor regarding issues similar to those reported by the Director.
COMMENTS FROM THE AUDIENCE (regarding non-agenda items)
Director/Secretary Rojas reported that staff received a continuance request from the appellant stating that he could not make this meeting due to medical problems of his wife and asking that the matter be continued to the September 9 meeting. He stated that the applicant did not agree to this continuance, therefore staff prepared the report and will let the Commission decide on the matter of the continuance.
Commissioner Lyon felt that even though a request has been made to continue the item, the facts were clear and he did not think there was anything else the appellant could tell the Commission that would influence their decision. He felt that Director had made his decision based on the findings and felt that he had made a correct decision. He felt that the appellant’s letter was very critical of staff and avoided the issues of the height variation.
Chairman Long opened the public hearing.
Mr. Chen 6937 Vallon Drive requested that the Planning Commission not continue the item and hear the item at this meeting. He felt that his neighbor’s position was very clear and wished to proceed with the hearing in a timely manner.
Chairman Long closed the public hearing.
Commissioner Cartwright moved to continue the item to the meeting of September 9, 2003, seconded by Commissioner Duran Reed. Approved (5-1) with Commissioner Lyon dissenting.
Associate Planner Schonborn presented the staff report, explaining the item was an appeal of the director’s denial of a project for a new single-family residence. He gave the background and history of the project, as well as the scope of the work, and that the director was not able to make all of the necessary findings for the grading permit. He explained that the appeal is based upon the idea that the director erred in his decision to deny the project. He stated that the appellant believes that the major grading minimizes the disturbance of the natural contours of the site, and explained that although staff did not feel the quantity of grading was excessive, the method in which the grading is being conducted is a concern to staff and noted that a majority of the proposed structure will be placed on fill material that does not follow the topography of the site. Mr. Schonborn presented a power point presentation showing the contours, proposed grading, and retaining walls at the property. Regarding neighborhood compatibility, he explained that staff could not make the appropriate finding and that the appellant felt that staff was using a selective interpretation of immediate neighborhood. He further explained that the denial was partially based on new geotechnical information regarding the nearby Marymount College site and the Public Works Department lower San Ramon Canyon geologist. He stated that this new geotechnical information puts in question the stability analysis performed for the subject property in 1997. He also explained that there was information from the Los Angeles County Fire Department indicating that the applicant’s proposed driveway does not comply with the minimum standards for access width. Therefore, staff was recommending that the Planning Commission deny without prejudice the appellant’s appeal and uphold the director’s decision.
Commissioner Cartwright asked staff what happens when there is a piece of property that has been approved for development but has a driveway or access that is sub-standard according to the Fire Department.
Associate Planner Schonborn explained that, according to the Fire Department, exceptions have been made, however the Fire Department staff was not aware of any driveway approved less than 15 feet in width. He noted that this particular property has a driveway easement that measures 10 feet in width.
Director/Secretary Rojas added that the City Development Code does have a minimum driveway width of 10 feet, however what was being discussed was a minimum width to satisfy the Fire Department.
Vice Chairman Mueller stated that in the staff report there were a number of retaining walls and grading cited, and asked staff to clarify what properties the proposed retaining walls had a significant visual impact to. He also asked staff how they addressed the near view and far view impacts of the retaining walls.
Associate Planner Schonborn explained that the retaining wall would be visible from properties and areas along the rim of the canyon, specifically some of the properties across the canyon on Tarapaca Road and the switchback areas along Palos Verdes Drive East.
Commissioner Tomblin asked staff to discuss the situation of the slide near Marymount College and how close it is to San Ramon Drive and if this project could have any impact on the slide areas.
Director/Secretary Rojas explained that after the geotechnical reports for this project were approved by the City Geologist, Marymount College submitted to the City a geotechnical report for its property that found that, based on a new slope stability analysis and new borings that were done in December 2002, there was an issue regarding the slope stability on its property and as a result Marymount College was proposing to move their proposed buildings further away from the slope. He showed a slide depicting the topography of the area and the estimated scarp of the Southshores Landslide and noted how the landslide scarp below Marymount College also extends below the proposed property.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked how far the proposed house was from the landslide area.
Jim Lancaster, the City Geologist, answered that the proposed house was approximately 100 feet from the scarp and about 250 feet from the slide debris. He gave detail regarding a map of the area that was depicted on a power point slide, explaining where the new borings were taken and how slope stability at Marymount College was determined. He explained that this new information was received after the geology had been approved for the subject property and that the Director was questioning the relationship between the area at Marymount College and the area at San Ramon Drive.
Director/Secretary Rojas added that although the City has the report from Marymount College that summarizes the conclusions of the testing, the City does not have the detailed data for the basis of those conclusions and, in speaking with the City Geologist, if the City had that data it could possibly better answer the question about the relationship between the two areas.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked if someone was going to submit that information.
Director/Secretary Rojas explained that the City has the report from Marymount College that summarizes the conclusions, the City does not have the detailed data for the basis of those conclusions. He stated that if the City had that data, the City Geologist could possibly better answer the question about the relationship of the two properties. If the data is not received from Marymount College the City would have to rely on the information provided in the geotechnical report supplied for the proposed project.
Commissioner Tomblin asked how the Southshores Landslide boundaries were established.
Mr. Lancaster explained the history of the Southshores Landslide, explaining that it is currently considered an inactive landslide, as it has not moved in approximately 16,000 years. He explained the difference between the Southshores Landslide and the San Ramon Landslide. He noted, however, that because there is new information available and new borings, the information should be looked at.
Commissioner Tomblin asked Mr. Lancaster to point out the closest landslides involved with San Ramon Drive.
Mr. Lancaster pointed out the scarp for the Southshores Landslide, the Tarapaca Landslide, and the area of San Ramon landslide on a map shown as a power point slide. He stated that the geologic conditions in all areas are similar in that they are all in the same materials, but the actual geologic structures involved are different.
Commissioner Tomblin asked what started the San Ramon and Tarapaca landslides.
Mr. Lancaster stated that undercutting of the bedding along the canyon bottom from erosion is what most likely started the two slides.
Commissioner Cartwright asked if the only information the City consultant had seen was the data from 1997.
Mr. Lancaster explained that the applicant’s geotechnical consultant has submitted additional information this year in support of the previous 1997 analysis and reiterated that the site was safe to build on.
Commissioner Cartwright asked Mr. Lancaster if he felt he needed to see additional geological data.
Mr. Lancaster answered that if the information is available it should be reviewed.
Commissioner Lyon asked Mr. Lancaster, based on the geological information he has seen, what his conclusions were regarding the acceptability of building on the applicant’s site.
Mr. Lancaster answered that from a geologic standpoint he felt it was acceptable.
Commissioner Lyon asked if acceptable meant it was very safe or if it was close to not acceptable.
Mr. Lancaster thought it was acceptable, however not very safe, as the slope stability calculations were approximately 1.5 to 1.6, which is almost at the minimum factor of safety of 1.5 required in the Code.
Commissioner Lyon asked, given the worst case scenario that the applicant’s property does slide or create a slide, what is the likelihood that the slide will impact the four closest properties along San Ramon Drive.
Mr. Lancaster answered that in order for the property to fail in the proposed given direction, the Southshores Landslide would also have to fail, and if the Southshores Landslide were to fail there would be a real problem in the area. He reiterated that the Southshores Landslide is characterized as a stable inactive landslide and unless further studies indicate that it is moving or that the factor of safety is very close to 1.0 he did not see any reason to think that anything was different with the landslide.
Commissioner Cote asked what type of things would trigger a landslide.
Mr. Lancaster answered that some of the general things that trigger a landslide would be the introduction of water to weak materials, weak materials that cannot hold up on their own, undercutting bedding, earthquakes, and possibly grading.
Commissioner Cote asked if the property was going to be landscaped, and how much closer to the scarp this landscaping would be.
Associate Planner Schonborn answered that the property would be landscaped and estimated the landscaping and retaining walls would be possibly 70 to 80 feet from the mapped landslide scarp.
Chairman Long opened the public hearing.
Harold Thompson 428 W 234th Place, Carson (applicant) explained that before he bought this land he had an initial geology report done by Keith Ehlert regarding the feasibility of building on the land and after buying the land he worked with a new geologist, Art Keene, to prepare reports for the development of the property. He noted that both geologists are very well known and very well respected in their field. He stated that the location of the house was done in such a way as to minimize the amount of grading and driven by the fact that he wanted the fire truck turnaround, which has certain defined dimensions from the Fire Department. He felt that this proposed residence was very stable, as it would be built on caissons into bedrock. He felt the plan was well designed and all issues had been thoroughly studied and asked the Planning Commission to overturn the Director’s decision and approve the project.
Commissioner Tomblin asked Mr. Thompson about the 10-foot easement and the need for the Fire Department to have a wider area to bring emergency equipment down.
Mr. Thompson stated that according to the Subdivision Map Act of 1929, once the lot is formed the Fire Department cannot ask him to change it. He stated that he has examined how wide fire trucks are and that the maximum width of a fire truck is 8 feet.
He felt that the Fire Department wanted an area wide enough for two fire trucks to pass each other.
Arthur Keene 2601 E. Victor Street, Rancho Dominguez, stated that he was the geologist retained by Mr. Thompson and was available for any questions.
Commissioner Cartwright asked Mr. Keene if he was concerned about the recent geologic findings at Marymount College.
Mr. Keene did not think that any of the geologic conditions would have any impact on the property on San Ramon Drive, stating that he had read the report and could not conceive of how a slump moving in a southwest direction could affect the site. He noted that what was recently discovered was a small, shallow fissure with no indication that it was moving into the scarp area of the Southshores Landslide.
Commissioner Cartwright asked Mr. Keene to comment on many of the letters received voicing concern about standing water on the applicant’s property.
Mr. Keene answered that he did not know of any standing water on the applicant’s property.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked Mr. Keene if he had a chance to read the report from Amec dated March 26, 2003, and if so does he feel he has addressed all of the issues raised by that report.
Mr. Keene answered that he has read the report and that he has evaluated the issues, however he has not specifically addressed them in the report.
Director/Secretary Rojas clarified that the report was prepared by a geotechnical consultant to the public works department who worked on the Upper San Ramon Landslide repair and that the appellant has a copy of the report.
Forest Chadwick 3318 Caroline Ave, Culver City, stated he was appearing on behalf of the appellant and felt that the Director erred in his decision in the fact that the code allows for a great deal of latitude and interpretation as to what is in compliance with the neighborhood, what is apparent as far as bulk and height, and what is reasonable as far as protecting natural topography. He felt these were all very subjective words and they lend themselves to a great deal of latitude in interpretation. In as much, he felt it could be construed as arbitrary or capricious in the manner in which they are applied. He felt that the greatest deal of latitude was applied to this project and noted that this project has balanced cut and fill and there is no import or export. He stated that if that doesn’t respect the topography and natural grading of the site he did not know any other way to do so. He stated that many other projects approved by the Planning Commission and Planning Department indicate 400 plus cubic yards of removal of earth from the hillsides creating retaining walls beneath houses that have to support streets. He stated that this property has been designed in such a fashion that the greatest amount of cut and fill was for the hammerhead style turnaround. He explained that the portion of the house that has the proposed shed roof is there because the fire department will not allow any type of roof overhang over the hammerhead turnaround. He felt this is a very complex piece of property that the architect has taken a great deal of time to make sure all aspects of it fit into the code.
John Maloney (architect) stated this is a house he has spent quite a bit of time working on to accommodate the wishes of the Thompson family while making all of the factors of the property work. He felt the end product was a house of the land, of the lot, of the neighborhood, and of the time. He apologized for not bringing the rendering to the meeting to give everyone a better idea of the design of the house and how well it will fit onto the property. He discussed the proposed retaining walls and how they will be covered with vines and hidden by other structures. Discussing the landscaping, he noted that he would be using low water use ground covers, which keep the soil from eroding. He noted there would be fruit trees that would block the impact of the house from the surrounding neighbors as well as many green trellises throughout the property.
Commissioner Cote asked Mr. Maloney to describe in a little more detail the proposed landscaping for the property.
Mr. Maloney explained that there would be citrus trees planted in individual wells and drip irrigation, the planting between the trees and the house would be an erosion protecting grass that once established does not require any watering. He stated these were the lowest water use plants available and were set up to screen the retaining walls and home.
Commissioner Cote asked Mr. Maloney if he has ever done any landscaping in the city of Rancho Palos Verdes.
Mr. Maloney answered that he has done landscaping in Santa Monica and Malibu, which is the same coastal zone as Rancho Palos Verdes.
Commissioner Cartwright discussed the issue of neighborhood compatibility and asked Mr. Maloney to address why he did not feel he could not move closer to some of the staff’s recommendations regarding the retaining walls, the roof material, and the mass and bulk of the structure.
Mr. Maloney discussed the roofing material which is a lightweight tile, which he felt was compatible with the neighborhood. The shed roof is a shake roof, which is also compatible. He discussed the pitching of the roof, which he explained was done for energy efficiency. He stated that he was working with the factors at the site to design the house. He stated that he has heard the staff’s comments but does not understand them, as he felt the house was done with a balance of cut and fill.
Barbara Covy 2742 San Ramon Drive stated that she has contended for quite some time that she lives on an alluvial fan, explaining that there used to be a stream that ran behind her house, which is why Marymount has a curved fence and why her backyard is curved the way it is. She distributed little packages of soil to the Planning Commissioners which she explained illustrates the type of soil in the neighbor’s yard. She read the definition of an alluvial fan and noted that what she distributed matches the definition of the soil found in an alluvial fan. She felt that there was a problem with the soil on Mr. Thompson’s property and even if the house is built on caissons, the soil will still be sliding into the canyon.
Dan Bernstein 2817 San Ramon Drive stated that a lot of land has moved in the neighborhood in the last 30 years. He asked the Planning Commission if they were reasonable certain that the grading of the proposed project will not precipitate land movement, and if it does occur how that will be mitigated.
Laura Cruz McSherry 2714 San Ramon Drive stated that she supported the Director’s denial of the project. She felt that if the project is approved the applicant should be asked to indemnify the project to protect the neighbors and the City.
Sara Dokter 2700 San Ramon Drive wondered whether the grading, drilling, and pounding that will take place when placing the caissons on the proposed project will be such that it will trigger new earth movement in the area. She felt that if 2700 ½ San Ramon were a buildable site the original developers would have developed the property when developing the rest of the tract. She read a brief statement from the Regional Planning Commission of the County of Los Angeles dated March 28, 1967denying the proposed project on the parcel, even though the county had approved the lot split three years earlier. She questioned what has happened to previous geology reports done on the property over the years, as she could find no record of them in City files. She felt this was a very unstable area and the taxpayer’s money has gone into projects on upper and lower San Ramon. She questioned who would be responsible for the residents’ properties and homes if the land should slide because of the proposed construction, and she encouraged the Planning Commission to uphold the Director’s decision.
Commissioner Cartwright asked Mrs. Dokter if the fire department has used the existing 10-foot easement to access her property, and if so has there ever been any problem doing so.
Mrs. Dokter answered that the existing 10-foot easement is used for her property and that she has had to call the fire department out to the property three times since she has lived there. She stated that the hook and ladder truck could get to her house, but could not go any further. She noted that the corner of her roof was knocked off by equipment using the easement several years ago.
Chairman Long asked staff to clarify issues with regards to the access and it was already deemed approved and grandfathered because of prior actions taken by the Regional Planning Commission when the lot was created, or is there an issue in that if there is inadequate easement for access to the lot that it simply cannot be developed in the manner proposed.
Associate Planner Schonborn explained that when speaking with staff at the L.A. County Fire Department, he was informed that an access width such as the one proposed for the property would not be acceptable, however Variances can be applied for. He noted that the Fire Department staff had indicated that 15 feet was the very minimum that staff had ever seen.
Director/Secretary Rojas explained that Fire Department approvals were typically dealt with in Building and Safety in the plan check process.
Chairman Long stated therefore that even if the Planning Commission upheld the appeal, that based on the information staff has available from the Fire Department, it would be a futile exercise because the access to the property is insufficient from the Fire Department’s point of view.
Director/Secretary Rojas agreed, and added that it would be up to the applicant and the Fire Department to work out the access issues.
Neil Nichols 2823 San Ramon Drive stated that things are not always static, and the biggest example is the San Ramon Canyon. He stated that there is more building and more irrigation taking place above San Ramon Canyon which adds more water into the canyon. He wondered if this had been factored into any impact this project might have on the area around it.
RECESS AND RECONVENE
At 8:50 p.m. the Planning Commission took a short recess until 9:05 p.m. at which time they reconvened.
CONTINUED BUSINESS (CONT)
Brett Walker 30763 Tarapaca Road stated that he is against the project, as there seems to be too many variables involved, including the location in relation to the San Ramon and Tarapaca landslides, the grading variables, and the new construction variables. He stated that there is quite a bit of land movement currently in the neighborhood and disagreed with the statement of the City Geologist that natural erosion was one of the causes of the Tarapaca Landslide. He felt that what the City has done at the top of the canyon to help the water come down the canyon has only increased the erosion at the bottom of Tarapaca. He stated that the developments taking place at the top of the canyon and the water being diverted down the canyon has created a bad situation.
John Fykes 2727 San Ramon Drive felt the major concern of the project is the risk. He stated that he has read the geological reports and he is an engineer, and agrees that the risk is low. Unfortunately, he felt it is the product of risk and what happens that is his concern. He felt that if the South Shores Landslide is reactivated the loss to the people in the neighborhood would be extremely great. He discussed the proposed landscaping and noted that the current owner may not own the home for very long and there would be nothing stopping a new owner from replacing the landscaping and do quite a bit of irrigation.
Sam VanWagner 2763 San Ramon Drive requested the Planning Commission deny the appeal and uphold the Director’s decision. He felt that the Director and staff make a very compelling case for denying the application by clearly and forcefully articulating several reasons for denying the application. He focused his comments on No.5, the land stability issue, and noted that the Planning Commission was very aware of the land stability issues in the San Ramon area, ranging from the $4.5 million the city has spent on repairing the San Ramon Canyon and the unknown amount the city faces in repairing the Tarapaca Landslide. He noted that it was his understanding that the Tarapaca Landslide lies on top of the Southshores Landslide. He recognizes that the applicant’s geologist has submitted letters saying that it is essentially all right to build on the lot, however he has not seen any new additional information that would verify the statement. He quoted a portion of a letter from the geologic firm Cotton Shires regarding the many lots in Zone 2 to be developed, which said that the lots could be developed without causing the large landslide to be destabilized. He noted that notwithstanding this conclusion, the City Council upheld the moratorium and, among other things, in the Resolution stated that the decision to allow new building on the undeveloped lots in that area given the unknown level of risk is a policy decision which must be based on the willingness to accept the unknown risk, and noted the City Council was not willing to accept that unknown risk. He stated that the staff report also discusses issues of neighborhood capability, but noted that his major concern was the land stability. He did agree that the project was not a good fit for the hillside neighborhood.
Harold Thompson (in rebuttal) stated that he would be willing to add a condition to the deed stating that the landscaping must be maintained as planted. He stated that his geologist has estimated that the top of the head scarp is 100 feet from the buildings on his property, however the active part of the landslide, which is the bottom part of the landslide, would be 300 feet away from the house. He noted that the Public Works report on the Tarapaca Landslide states that the South Shores Landslide is inactive, and that was report to the City Council on April 15. He explained that when his lot was formed, it was done by the person who sold the Docktors their home and at that time a 10 foot easement was created to access his lot. He noted that when he went to buy the lot there was a wall and a corner of the house built inside the easement. Regarding the issue of view, he stated that the house is not viewable from San Ramon Drive as the house is down slope, and noted that Marymount is not visible from the lot. He felt that some homes on Tarapaca would be able to see the end of the house and the garage. He stated that he would be happy to send the Planning Commission the renderings in computer format to view.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked Mr. Thompson, if by chance the appeal is upheld, and the fire department requires a 20-foot easement for access, what he planned to do to acquire the necessary easement.
Mr. Thompson replied that one option was to file an easement by necessity and take 10 feet away from the Docktor's property. He noted that there is also a 10-foot easement on the other side of the property and there is a 6-foot wide county sewer easement, which he would have to talk to the County about.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked Mr. Thompson if he was willing to affect his neighbor’s property to gain his needed easement
Mr. Thompson answered that he could affect his neighbor’s property to get his easement, he could sell his lot to somebody else, or if the lot is deemed unbuildable he felt that would be considered reverse condemnation.
Chairman Long asked Mr. Thompson if he has title insurance and if it insures access.
Mr. Thompson answered that he does have title insurance and it does insure access.
Chairman Long closed the public hearing.
Commissioner Lyon stated that his first response was to agree with the staff report recommendations, however after hearing the public speakers several questions were raised in his mind. He did not see a problem with neighborhood compatibility, and according to the code and stated treatment of the walls that would exist, it was not an issue in his mind. Regarding the stability of the land, the City has a guideline of a factor of safety of 1.5, which the property exceeds. Regarding the issue of access, the City requires 10 feet for access, which is what exists. He noted, however, that he would find it particularly offensive if a neighbor built a driveway just inches away from the neighbor’s house, and did not think it was a good idea to have a main driveway being only inches from living quarters. Regarding the landslide issues, he realized that the risk of a landslide may be very low, however the consequences from a landslide are extremely serious. He stated that there are no guarantees and no insurance that neighbors can buy to protect themselves. He was very reluctant to do anything that would raise any possibility of a disaster occurring. He stated that this situation is safer than the moratorium area, in terms of the numbers, but the same concept applies. He felt the City was being overly conservative to avoid a disaster. He stated that using his common sense, not the letter of the law, he was to agree with the staff report.
Commissioner Tomblin agreed with Commissioner Lyon’s comments. He was disappointed that there were no renderings available, as he was having trouble with the neighborhood compatibility issues. After hearing what has happened with Marymount and San Ramon, he was very concerned and felt it was very important to have the additional geotechnical information from Marymount College. Lastly, he felt the applicant should talk to the County about using the 6-foot easement, as he did not think the existing 10-foot easement was adequate. Therefore, he was in favor of upholding the Director’s decision.
Commissioner Duran Reed agreed with Commissioners Lyon and Tomblin, and noted she was very concerned with the safety issues. She was not entirely convinced that because there is an existing report from 1997 that the City should discount new information from the surrounding areas. She noted that there was an approval of a project in Rancho Palos Verdes where everyone, including the City, thought it was safe and there was a major accident which caused a dramatic landslide at the site. She felt that if there was any type of problem during the grading of this project it could be disastrous to the entire neighborhood. She did not think this proposed home was compatible with the neighborhood, primarily because of the retaining walls. She also felt that the trees shown in a photograph which showed a mock-up of what the house would look like, did not look natural and did not belong in this neighborhood. She stated that she would be inclined to uphold the Director’s decision and deny the appeal.
Commissioner Cartwright agreed with the comments of the previous Commissioners and was very troubled with the conflicting information regarding the geology of the area. He stated that he would be much more comfortable if he knew that the assessment being made on the stability of the Southshores Landslide was based on the best and most current data. He was concerned about neighborhood compatibility issues and noted that there was a mass and bulk issue, and he too felt a rendering would have been very helpful. He noted that the applicant and architect had stated that the bulk and size of the retaining walls would be mitigated by landscaping, however he did not think the City should depend on landscaping for mitigation, and would like to see the walls built such that they were built further into the slope. Therefore, he supported the staff recommendations, and encouraged the applicant to come back with more data that was a bit more convincing.
Commissioner Cote agreed with the Director with regards to specific findings that could not be made. She had difficulty with the large retaining walls and did not think that the landscaping was the solution to the problem. She was concerned that the landscaping was not natural to the area and it would introduce water into the canyon, and noted that when water is introduced to the canyon there is the possibility of causing instability. She felt that there was the potential risk to public safety because of this. She therefore supported the Director’s denial of the project.
Vice Chairman Mueller agreed with the comments of the Commissioners and added that it was important to him that the home adhere to the contours of the land, which he felt this design did not do. He felt this design primarily addresses the access issues and the fire turnaround. He did not think the design had been worked on enough to fit into the topography of the land. Regarding the land stability, he felt he could make the appropriate findings at this time, as the factor of safety at the site meets the City standards. Regarding neighborhood compatibility, he felt minor changes could be made to make the home more compatible with the neighborhood. Finally, regarding access, he felt there was a problem for emergency equipment gaining access to the property, which might pose a safety issue. He stated that he supports the Director’s decision.
Chairman Long stated that he was not persuaded that the concerns raised in the AMEC report dated March 26, 2003 have been addressed such that the findings can be made. While it might be that some reports from 1997 have found acceptable factors of safety, he felt the information was not information to positively make finding no. 5. He agreed there was a neighborhood compatibility concern and the finding for that could not be made. Regarding the access to the property, he did not think the property has adequate access to allow the property to be developed. He explained that easement by necessity is an equitable remedy, and when it poses an undue hardship upon someone else it will be denied. He found it interesting that his title insurance insured access to the property, and suggested that the appellant might want to give consideration, if the appellant cannot develop the property, as to whether or not he has a viable claim against his title insurance company for insuring access to a property, that as a practical matter does not have sufficient access to allow the property to be used in a normal manner. He concluded by stating that he was in support of the Director’s decision to deny the project.
Commissioner Duran Reed moved to adopt P.C. Resolution No. 2003-32, thereby upholding the Director’s denial of the project and denying the appeal, seconded by Commissioner Lyon. Approved, ( 7-0).
RECESS AND RECONVENE
At 10:12 p.m. the Planning Commission took a short recess until 10:25 p.m. at which time they reconvened.
PUBLIC HEARINGS (CONT)
2. Height Variation Permit (Case No. 2003-00179): 1979 Trudie Drive
Associate Planner Blumenthal presented the staff report, explaining the scope of the project and the need for the height variation. He stated that staff felt all of the necessary findings for the height variation could be made and staff was recommending approval of the project.
Chairman Long opened the public hearing.
Mr. Borg 1917 Trudie Drive (applicant) stated that he had read and agreed with the staff report and asked the Planning Commission to approve the project.
Chairman Long closed the public hearing.
Commissioner Tomblin moved to adopt P.C. Resolution No. 2003-33 thereby approving the height variation, seconded by Commissioner Lyon. Approved, (7-0).
3. Variance and Grading Permit (Case ZON2003-00247): 30822 Rue de la Pierre
Commissioner Cartwright stated that he had previously abstained in past applications for this property because of the 500-foot radius restrictions. Recently, however, he has had cause to look closer at the state law and noted that it does not call for an automatic disqualification, but rather presumes a material impact if one resides within 500 feet. He noted, however, that the presumption can be rebutted by proof that the specific circumstances make it reasonably foreseeable that the decision would have no financial effect on his property. He stated that his property is in a development adjacent to this development, and that development is 60 to 70 feet down slope from his property, is not seen from his property, and is not accessible from his property. In his opinion, there is nothing that could happen on Rue de la Pierre that could financially affect his property.
Director/Secretary Rojas stated that he had received a call from the City Attorney informing him that she had been in contact with Commissioner Cartwright regarding this subject, and that in her opinion he is eligible, pursuant to the Brown Act, to participate in this item for the reasons noted.
Commissioner Cote noted that she had not been able to make a site visit and did not feel comfortable in making a decision regarding this project. She would therefore abstain from this item, and asked to be excused from the rest of the meeting. Commissioner Cote left the meeting at this time.
Assistant Planner Luckert presented the staff report, giving the history of the project and the requested Variance to allow the two walls to be considered as two separate entities rather than a single wall. He stated that staff could make the necessary findings for the variance and grading applications, and recommended approval of the project.
Vice Chairman Mueller noted that, under the finding for exceptional and extraordinary circumstances, staff had made the statement that this is the only property on the street that contains a swimming pool directly adjacent to Rue de la Pierre. He asked why staff is not considering the other swimming pool on the street.
Assistant Planner Luckert explained that the other swimming pool is not similar in terms of size and associated retaining walls.
Vice Chairman Mueller asked what extraordinary circumstance on this property requires the two walls in question be built so close together.
Assistant Planner Luckert answered that given the slope gradient and the approved pool, staff feels this creates an exceptional circumstance not applicable to other properties in the area.
Vice Chairman Mueller stated that he could not follow this logic, as the original plan showed a wall that conformed to the City codes and that at the previous meeting structural engineers had stated the wall could be lowered without affecting the integrity of the wall. He therefore could not see any extraordinary circumstances in regards to this property. He discussed the wall at the left of the property near the electrical box and the height of this wall, and asked why no variance was requested for this wall. He did not understand how this very high wall could be allowed.
Assistant Planner Luckert stated that this wall was not part of the Variance request.
Vice Chairman Mueller questioned the wall and its conformance with the General Plan. He noted that if everyone were to build a wall down the street similar to this wall, how would that fit into the General Plan.
Director/Secretary Rojas noted that this is a unique situation, as these property lines are considered the rear property lines and the code allows 6-foot solid walls along a rear property line. He noted that, consistent with the code, everyone on the street could conceivably build 6-foot high walls along the rear property line, and be consistent with the General Plan.
Vice Chairman Mueller acknowledged that a 6-foot high wall could be built along the back property line and therefore felt there was not a need to grant a variance for the wall in place, as the wall could be lowered or the thickness of the outer wall could be reduced.
Director/Secretary Rojas stated that the application was to seek a variance from the three-foot wall separation requirement.
Commissioner Cartwright stated that the separation of the two walls is the issue here, and if the walls were separated by 36 inches they would be considered built to code. He felt that the issue was if there was a case to be made in granting the variance since the separation between the two walls is only thirty inches. He felt that in this situation a variance made sense.
Commissioner Tomblin asked if approving a Variance request for these walls would set any kind of precedence on the street for others to build these types of walls.
Director/Secretary Rojas responded that a Variance only applies to the property it is requested for and each Variance request is looked at individually.
Chairman Long asked if these walls were constructed in this location because of a good faith mistake or if it was intentional.
Assistant Planner Luckert responded that it was staff’s belief that the walls were in the present location because of a good faith mistake.
Commissioner Duran Reed stated that in the original staff report staff felt that the two existing retaining walls would create the illusion of one large wall, however in this staff report that has changed. She asked if it was safe to assume that has changed because the vegetation has now grown in and the wall looks more like two separate walls.
Director/Secretary Rojas explained that was an issue he had struggled with, however after viewing the recent photographs he made the conclusion that the walls now appear to be two separate walls.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked if the fact that the walls were built because of a good faith mistake could be considered an exceptional or extraordinary circumstance that is applicable to this property, or does it have to be physical.
Director/Secretary Rojas answered that it could be considered exceptional or extraordinary, and could recall instances in the past when honest errors have been considered exceptional or extraordinary circumstances.
Commissioner Cartwright felt that the exceptional and extraordinary circumstance on this property was that the applicant had made a good faith effort to build retaining walls that were per City code.
Chairman Long opened the public hearing.
Mrs. Sartori 30822 Rue de la Pierre (applicant) discussed the taller corner wall that concerned the Vice Chairman, explaining that the original grade was much higher in that area when the walls were built. She stated that since the walls were built, Edison will not allow her to replant and revegetate the area behind the electrical box. She stated that she agrees with the staff report and felt that a Variance was a fair and reasonable way to solve this difficult problem with the walls. She explained that when the walls were built there was miscommunication between herself and staff and that it was nobody’s fault, as both parties felt they were doing the right thing at that time. She stated that the walls were built safely and the construction was approved by the building and safety department. She stated that to reduce the walls would be an extreme financial cost to her.
Vice Chairman Mueller asked staff if the height of the wall would have been measured from the pile of dirt that existed at the time or from the natural grade of the property as it was developed.
Director/Secretary Rojas answered that at the time the walls were approved the height was most likely measured from the pre-existing grade, and noted if the grade is now lower because of some type of Edison request, the wall will be higher than originally envisioned.
Vice Chairman Mueller noted that when the first application was brought before the Planning Commission the grade on the slope was slightly above 35 percent, and when the application was brought in again the slope had dropped, and he wondered if the land had been re-graded during that time.
Mrs. Sartori answered that the land was never re-graded, and noted that slightly over a year had passed between the two applications and that there had been torrential rainfall during that time, which could account for the difference.
David Sakaeda 30834 Rue de la Pierre stated that he was in support of the applicant’s request for a variance. He felt the wall looked very nice the way it is currently built, and noted that the walls were built in good faith. He felt that it would be an injustice to force the applicant to lower the height of the walls at this point.
Vice Chairman Mueller asked if he had read the resolution from the last Planning Commission hearing on this matter.
Mr. Sakaeda answered that he had not read the Resolution.
Vice Chairman Mueller asked if he was aware that the Director’s recommendation was to lower the height of the taller wall and leave the lower wall as is. He noted that by doing this it would lower the overall height of the wall as it appears from the street.
Mr. Sakaeda answered that he was aware of that recommendation.
Vice Chairman Mueller noted that Mr. Sakaeda is also doing improvements in his backyard, and asked if those improvements included a wall and wondered what type of wall was being built.
Mr. Sakaeda answered that they would be building a retaining wall.
Vice Chairman Mueller asked if the retaining wall was going to be built to City code, or if a Variance would be needed for this wall.
Mr. Sakaeda answered that they were planning to build this wall to the code.
John Westenhaver 30902 Rue de la Pierre felt that everyone should learn a lesson from this case and suggested that staff take a look at the instructions that are given to the public when they come in to build something. He felt it was important to make sure that it was very clear to the public what the sequence and approvals are needed when building and when revisions are made.
Chairman Long closed the public hearing.
Commissioner Duran Reed felt that the exceptional or extraordinary circumstance in this situation was the fact that there was a miscommunication between the city and the applicant, and that a good faith mistake had been made. She stated that she had no trouble making the other findings necessary for granting a Variance, and recommended that the Planning Commission accept the staff report and grant the variance.
Commissioner Tomblin stated that when this application was previously before the Planning Commission he had voted in support of the staff recommendations, as there was no Variance application before them at the time. Now that there is a variance before the Planning Commission, he felt that this is an exceptional case and supported the staff recommendation to approve the variance.
Commissioner Lyon stated that he supported the staff’s recommendations to approve the variance request.
Commissioner Cartwright felt this application was before the Planning Commission because of an unfortunate set of circumstances that led the applicant to build a set of walls not to the City’s code. He felt that those circumstances were an honest mistake. He stated that the Planning Commission has a responsibility to try to balance the rights of the homeowner with the concerns of the neighbors and the interests of the City. He felt that in this case, this can best be done by the granting of the Variance, and supported the staff’s recommendations.
Vice Chairman Mueller felt that there was some confusion as to how these walls were built, as there seemed to be inconsistencies in the reasons why the walls were built the way they were, especially since the plans show walls that conform to the City code. His concerns center around the fact that there are a number of lots in the City that are similar to this lot in that people own slopes down to the next street. He didn’t think that many neighbors would appreciate an 8 foot was being built along the property line across the street from their home. He did not think these types of walls were consistent with the General Plan. He stated that the City had used a consultant to examine the structural integrity of the wall to ensure that it could be lowered without disturbing the wall itself. He did not see a good faith mistake made in this situation, but rather a miscommunication and the only way to correct that was to try to get the applicant to adhere to the height of the walls in this City as opposed to creating walls along the street. Therefore, he could not make the findings necessary for the Variance, as he did not consider a miscommunication with the building department as an extraordinary circumstance.
Chairman Long shared some of the Vice Chairman’s concerns on how this matter came before the Planning Commission and the circumstances surrounding the building of the wall, however he does not come to the same conclusions at the Vice Chairman. He felt that the walls were now before the Planning Commission in a much more appropriate vehicle, that of a Variance application. He shared the Vice Chairman’s concern of driving down streets facing walls on both sides, however he understood that the Code allows taller walls in the rear yard so that residents can enjoy their privacy. He stated that the factors he can consider in evaluating whether or not there are extraordinary circumstances include a number of things. Given that this is a rear yard and given that the wall is not greatly too high, and weighing that against the circumstances and the degree of change, it was his conclusion that it alone makes it an extraordinary circumstance. That, coupled with what he thought was a good faith mistake and that there is no opposition in the neighborhood to the wall, all combine to make this an extraordinary circumstance. He therefore supported that staff’s recommendation to approve the Variance.
Commissioner Duran Reed moved to adopt P.C. Resolution 2003-34 with the amended findings, thereby approving the submitted Variance (Case No. ZON2003-00247) and revision ‘A’ to the Grading Permit (Case No. ZON2002-00062), seconded by Commissioner Cartwright.
Vice Chairman Mueller noted that the street in question is a cul-de-sac, and felt that many walls could easily appear along the street, and while these particular neighbors may not have any objections to the walls, he thought other neighbors might. He felt that in accepting this particular wall the Planning Commission was sending a message that they were in favor of erecting walls that abut ordinary residential streets. He sympathized with residents who abut busy streets and have quite a bit of road noise and traffic, however he did not think this was the case in this situation.
Chairman Long did not think that the Code recognizes the distinction between streets along an arterial and those along a cul-de-sac. In supporting the staff recommendation, he wanted to make it clear that he was not inviting people to come in and apply for variances, and noted that there are specific circumstances that are applicable to this case that are quite unique and he did not think could be conceivably applicable to other properties.
Vice Chairman Mueller disagreed, as he felt that if you lived across the street from a wall that abuts the road, you might view it differently.
The motion to approve the motion passed, (5-1) with Vice Chairman Mueller dissenting.
5. Review of Planning Commission minutes
Director/Secretary Rojas explained that this item has been agendized at the request of Commissioner Lyon who wanted to look at the concept of having the minutes at the end of the agenda and how to avoid the situation of the minutes not being looked at during the meeting.
Chairman Long asked if any member of the City Council or the City Manager has complained that any Planning Commission minutes were late in a way that interfered with the operations of the City Council.
Director/Secretary Rojas answered that, to his knowledge, there have been no complaints.
Commissioner Cartwright felt that the real difficulty was that he reads the minutes along with the current staff reports, and when the Planning Commission gets behind in their approvals of the minutes he has to re-read the minutes before each meeting. He felt it would be very helpful to approve the minutes that are on each agenda.
Chairman Long felt that it would be a useful idea if the Planning Commission remind themselves when it is getting late in a meeting, to consider moving the minutes up in the Agenda. He suggested, if the meeting is running late, possibly taking a break in the hearing and reviewing the minutes immediately before a break.
Commissioner Lyon stated that his concern was that the Planning Commission address the minutes at every meeting, and suggested exempting the minutes from the 11:00 rule or addressing the minutes right before the break as suggested by the Chairman. His only concern was that the minutes be addressed before adjourning the meeting. He also did not see the need to editorialize the minutes as though they are speeches by each Commissioner to be memorialized.
Chairman Long agreed with Commissioner Lyon, as long as the Planning Commissioners could reliably get the minutes electronically, hopefully by Thursday mornings, which would allow the Commissioners time to review the minutes before the meeting and submit their changes to staff.
Commissioner Tomblin stated that he preferred moving the minutes to the middle of the meeting if the meeting was beginning to run long.
Commissioner Duran Reed agreed with the idea of hearing the minutes near the middle, giving the audience a little longer break while the Commission reviews the minutes.
Vice Chairman Mueller agreed with the idea of reviewing the minutes near the middle of the meeting, right before a break.
Chairman Long did not think a formal amendment was necessary to the Planning Commission policies, but rather agree that it would be the typical policy of the Planning Commission to try to address the minutes at each meeting, and that the Chairman is instructed by the Planning Commission that, when necessary to do so, to have the minutes addressed right before the break.
APPROVAL OF THE MINUTES
6. Minutes of July 8, 2003
Since a portion of the July 8 minutes deal with a case that Commissioner Duran Reed is involved with, she was asked to leave the room and recuse herself from the discussion of the minutes.
Commissioner Cartwright noted there was an incomplete sentence on page 4 of the minutes.
Chairman Long opened the public hearing.
Clara Duran Reed 30652 Palos Verdes Drive East noted several grammatical changes on page 5 of the minutes, as well as a clarification on a statement made by Director Rojas. On pages 8 and 11 of the minutes, she noted grammatical and typographical errors.
Chairman Long closed the public hearing.
Commissioner Cartwright moved to adopt the minutes as amended, including the suggestions made by the public speaker, seconded by Commissioner Tomblin. Approved, (5-0-1) with Commissioner Duran Reed abstaining.
ITEMS TO BE PLACED ON FUTURE AGENDAS
8. Pre-Agenda for the meeting of July 30, 2003
Commissioner Duran Reed proposed adding an item to a future agenda to discuss whether the Planning Commission can change the guidelines to require the applicant to contact the closest number of homes, if possible, and if they couldn’t she would like see a reason why they couldn’t be contacted. She noted that this was brought to her attention because of problems regarding tonight’s agenda item no. 4.
Commissioner Cartwright stated that his only concern was that the new neighborhood compatibility guidelines have just been distributed, and felt another change may be very difficult.
Chairman Long was not sure it was appropriate to discuss this on an agenda until the Planning Commission heard the information from agenda item no. 4, and to look at the merits of the case to see if there is a problem.
Commissioner Duran Reed suggested that the Planning Commission be proactive and not wait until there is a problem.
Vice Chairman Mueller supported the Chairman’s position and stated he was not typically in favor of asking the applicant’s to do extra work, as the City asks them to do enough as it is.
Chairman Long stated that he may be persuaded to discuss this matter after hearing the case on agenda item no. 4, and noted that it may be appropriate at that time to request this topic be put on a future agenda.
Commissioner Duran Reed asked if a request by a Commissioner to have an item placed on a future agenda is put on by consensus.
Director/Secretary Rojas explained that typically the Planning Commission adds things to future agendas based on a consensus.
The Planning Commission determined that discussion of placing this on a future agenda should be brought up after the public hearing on agenda item no. 4.
Commissioners Duran Reed, Tomblin, and Vice Chairman Mueller stated that they would not be at the July 30 meeting. Chairman Long noted that Commissioner Cote would also be absent from that meeting.
The meeting was adjourned at 12:30 a.m.