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|Santa Monica Grapples with Conserving Neighborhoods|
By Jason Islas
June 29, 2012 -- The City Council offered its thoughts Tuesday night on preliminary revisions to Santa Monica’s zoning code that would discourage development and conserve character in residential areas.
The updates to Santa Monica’s zoning ordinance include design guidelines and a revised design review process to “conserve the character, scale and quality of life” in the City’s eight neighborhoods.
But how much discretion would be used to determine if new buildings fit into their surroundings became the center of Tuesday's council debate during the study session.
Council member Kevin McKeown said that the City should use the opportunity to increase the discretion it has over developments.
“When we adopted the LUCE we promised the residents of the City that while 4 to 6 percent of the city were going to see fairly substantial change under the LUCE, the 94 to 96 percent -- which is our residential neighborhoods -- would see much less change,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis agreed, adding that the ordinance update should “create incentives to move development away from the residential neighborhoods to the transit corridors.”
The City should “preserve our neighborhoods by regaining local discretion,” he said.
State law states that individual cities “cannot deny or reduce a particular project based on a project-specific determination that it is not compatible,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.
However, “The solution to that problem is objective standards. If you pick standards that fit the neighborhood character, and you put those in place as standards” then the City would have no problem enforcing those standards, she added.
“Increasing discretion seems to me to just create more confusion in the process and more challenges,” Council member Terry O’Day said in response to McKeown’s call for more City control over development.
“What I am interested in is… creating more objective standards,” he said, a sentiment that resonated with Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis.
The zoning ordinance update should be “something very predictable,” said Davis. Santa Monica is “already considered one of the hardest cities to do remodels in.”
A more discretionary process, she said, would only exacerbate that problem.
But, “this is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. Some neighborhoods have more character to preserve than others.
In other neighborhoods, like 19th Street north of Montana Avenue, the palm trees are considered very integral to the character of the neighborhood, she said.
Council member Pam O’Connor, who is a historic preservationist, said that when drafting the ordinance updates, staff should be careful about the wording.
“Is this a historic preservation ordinance?” she asked staff Tuesday. “Or is it conservation?"
Though staff assured her that the goal of the neighborhood conservation ordinance would not be to preserve historic elements but rather to conserve the general character of the neighborhoods, O'Connor said the current wording “sounds like we’re freezing neighborhoods in time right now.”
O’Connor drew the distinction between conservation and preservation because an ordinance focused on conservation would mean that “while it’s about retaining neighborhoods, the neighborhoods will still evolve a bit.”
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