ROLLING HILLS ESTATES — For nearly 30 years, this city has relied on public cooperation--aided sometimes by neighborhood deed restrictions--to preserve its open, rural environment characterized by white rail fences, horses and large lots.
But concern about oversized new homes on rustic streets and home additions that obstruct views has prompted the city to consider bolstering this cooperation with compulsion.
Last week, the Planning Commission--after a series of public hearings that began last September--proposed changes in the residential building code, calling for a Planning Department review of proposed new structures and additions to assure that their size and appearance are compatible with the terrain and existing homes and that they do not intrude on the privacy or views of neighbors. The planning director could withhold permits for projects that are not modified to meet compatibility standards.
"Right now, the city does not have the authority to control the scale and appearance of residential structures, not only the house but accessory structures," said Steve Nystrom, assistant planner. "There is a need for some sort of review . . . so we don't get a three-story Tudor next to a ranch-style home."
If approved, it would be the first Planning Department design review process in city history. Many homeowner associations have the right to approve building plans under neighborhood deed restrictions, but Nystrom said controls are not very strong in most neighborhoods and the level of enforcement is questionable.
Other key changes proposed in the building code relate to building heights, setbacks, fencing and uses of front yards. Nystrom said all are aimed at preserving neighborhood compatibility.
"We are trying to keep an open feeling in front yards . . . and to encourage more sensitive designs so the appearance of buildings is less bulky or massive and respects neighbors' views," he said.
The proposals would:
- Reduce the present two-story height limit from a maximum of 35 feet to 27 feet. There would be a minimum front setback of 25 feet, but every foot of height over 14 feet would require an additional foot of setback on the front, rear and side of the building.
- Limit new front fences to the city's characteristic three-rail white wood fencing, with a maximum height of four feet.
- Reduce the portion of front yards that may be paved and link the amount of coverage to the street frontage of lots. Currently, 50% of the front yard may be paved, but the new range would be from 25% for lots with a frontage of 150 feet or more to 45% for those with frontage of less than 50 feet.
- Precisely define accessory buildings--including guest homes, garages, sheds, barns, patio covers and gazebos--which are referred to only in general terms in the current code. Nystrom said this is being done to eliminate "loopholes and ambiguities" about what kinds of structures are regulated.
The City Council will hold a public hearing Feb. 25 on the commission recommendations.
Mayor Peter Weber characterized Rolling Hills Estates residents as "people who are successful, affluent, and don't like being told what to do." He said he has mixed emotions about the review process because "the less government the better."
Controversy Over Buildings
But he and other officials said they believe that the public will accept the code changes and the design review process--citing a continuing controversy over two large metal storage buildings behind a Dapplegray Lane home as proof that controls are needed.
After construction of the buildings began in January, they incurred the wrath of Buckskin Lane residents across the canyon who have a clear view of the buildings, which total 3,500 square feet and stand 15 and 18 feet in height.
When the controversy reached City Hall, officials said the structures were approved and building and grading permits had been issued because they met all code requirements.
The owners voluntarily stopped work on the buildings and they, the city and the Dapplegray Lane Property Owners Assn. are still attempting to reach a compromise on modifications to the buildings to minimize the complaints of neighbors.
The city also has concluded that the owners exceeded the scope of their permits by doing too much grading, building a wooden retaining wall not permitted in the code, and putting the structures at locations other than those shown on the approved plan, according to city Planning Director Stephen A. Emslie.
Nystrom said that if the proposed code changes and the review process had been in effect when the Dapplegray project was processed by the Planning Department, it would not be a controversy today.
"We could have talked about the size, the building materials, screening, and the city would not have permitted these buildings," he said. He said the review process would have permitted the owners and the city to negotiate a reasonable project in keeping with the neighborhood.