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File #: 2015-1924   
Type: Regular Agenda Item
Body: Planning Board
On agenda: 7/27/2015
Title: Proposed Text Amendments to the City of Alameda Zoning Ordinance (AMC Chapter 30) regarding permit streamlining for residential property improvements and other miscellaneous administrative, technical, and clarifying amendments. Public hearing to consider zoning text amendments that would streamline permitting for residential property improvements and other minor administrative, technical and clarifying amendments to improve usability of the zoning regulations. The proposed amendments are categorically exempt from further environmental review pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15305, Minor Alterations to Land Use Limitations.
Attachments: 1. Exhibit 1 - Draft Ordinance

Title

 

Proposed Text Amendments to the City of Alameda Zoning Ordinance (AMC Chapter 30) regarding permit streamlining for residential property improvements and other miscellaneous administrative, technical, and clarifying amendments.  Public hearing to consider zoning text amendments that would streamline permitting for residential property improvements and other minor administrative, technical and clarifying amendments to improve usability of the zoning regulations.  The proposed amendments are categorically exempt from further environmental review pursuant to CEQA Guidelines Section 15305, Minor Alterations to Land Use Limitations. 

 

 

Body

 

BACKGROUND

 

The City of Alameda Zoning Ordinance establishes regulations and development standards for the use of land.  The purpose of these regulations is to protect public health, safety, and general welfare and ensure that public and private actions related to the use and development of land in Alameda is consistent with community expectations and priorities as articulated in the General Plan. 

 

A.                     The Design Review Process

 

Alameda’s Design Review process augments the zoning regulations to ensure that new construction is compatible and harmonious with the character of existing neighborhoods.  Design Review is required for most improvements on the exterior of a building, and obtaining Design Review approval is a prerequisite for building permits in order to start construction.  For most homeowners, preparing a Design Review application requires hiring an architect to prepare plans to demonstrate compliance with zoning regulations and the City’s design guidelines.  Once an application is submitted, staff reviews and comments on the project plans in accordance with City standards.  Revisions to plans are often necessary to fully comply with zoning regulations and design guidelines.  A public notice is subsequently generated by the City to neighbors within 100 feet, which is also posted on the property announcing to the neighborhood the start of a 10-day period for public comment.  After the public comment period, staff prepares written findings and issues a written decision with permit conditions.  The decision date also starts another 10-day period where any member of the public may file an appeal of the staff decision.  Appeals of staff decisions are heard by the Planning Board, and the Planning Board decision is ultimately appealable to the City Council.  A typical Design Review process will take anywhere from 30 to 45 days from application filing to approval, but applications generating significant public input could take many months to reach a decision, especially if they involve appeal hearings. 

 

To homeowners unfamiliar with the permitting process, Design Review can be difficult and frustrating, especially when it is required for minor improvements.  Homeowners also pay application fees ranging from $500 for simple exterior modifications, such as opening walls for new windows, to over $1,500 for large additions.  These fees are necessary to cover City costs to process a Design Review application; the City does not profit from permit fees.  Nonetheless, the required time, cost, and uncertainties of the public process are elements that can make the process stressful for applicants. 

 

B.  City Efforts to Improve the Permitting Process

 

The City’s Permit Center serves over 14,000 customers annually.  The current staff of four Planners reviews and processes nearly 1,000 Planning permit applications per year.  It is incumbent upon the City to continually improve the overall permitting experience by streamlining requirements, clarifying rules and regulations, and eliminating redundant processes.  Over the last five years, staff-initiated amendments to the zoning ordinance sought to align development regulations with policy direction taken from the deliberation of development proposals by the City Council and Planning Board.  These amendments also removed inconsistencies between established regulations and current community expectations for development in Alameda. 

 

The subject zoning text amendments (Exhibit 1) are the first of a series of amendments intended to streamline Planning review to reduce processing time and cost for homeowners. The proposed amendments also simplify regulations and memorialize existing interpretations and practices.  Staff plans to bring forward additional text amendments for Planning Board and Council consideration this fall.  The Planning Board's responsibility is to hold a public hearing and make a recommendation on the draft ordinance to the City Council.  After taking public comment, the Planning Board may recommend approval of all, some, or none of the proposed amendments to the City Council.  

 

ANALYSIS

 

A.  Proposed Residential Permit Streamlining Amendments

 

1. Chimney Alterations related to Seismic Safety.

 

A common permit request from Alameda homeowners involves alterations to masonry chimneys.  Under existing rules, alterations to chimneys other than those located on the back of the first story of a building are subject to Design Review.  Homeowners are usually undertaking the cost and effort to alter a chimney due to seismic safety concerns.  The alteration to the chimney often involves removal of the portion of a chimney above the roofline and capping the remaining chimney at the top.  Staff recommends exempting such chimney alterations when a licensed contractor or engineer report demonstrates the need to make improvements for seismic safety purposes.  Where the chimney is a character-defining feature on a historic property on the Historical Buildings Study List, Design Review would still be required to ensure alternative remedies are fully explored, including but not limited to reconstruction in-kind, to avoid materially altering the historic character of the building. 

 

Specifically, staff is recommending the following text be added to the list of Design Review exemptions in Section 30-37.2.b.:

 

“Alterations to chimneys for seismic safety purposes as determined by a licensed contractor or engineer, provided the chimney is not a character-defining feature on properties listed on the Historical Buildings Study List.”

 

2. Improvements to Existing Single Family Homes at Harbor Bay Isle.

 

This amendment would streamline the permitting process for homeowners residing within the Harbor Bay Isle planned community by exempting improvements to these residential properties from the City’s Design Review process.  “Improvement” is defined in the ordinance as “construction of a structure, an addition, or alteration to the exterior of a structure affixed to real property, which requires a building permit.”  The Harbor Bay Isle planned community has extensive architectural design standards enforced under the community’s own covenants that prevent egregious alterations that could significantly affect the existing neighborhood character.  In some cases, these architectural standards are more restrictive than the City’s design guidelines.  Residential home improvements are also required to pass an architectural review process through the homeowners association prior to filing permit applications with the City. 

 

Given the establishment of strict architectural standards and a robust internal review process safeguarded by Planned Development regulations and private covenants within the homeowners association, staff believes it is redundant to require additional Design Review for home improvements at Harbor Bay Isle.  Therefore, staff recommends exempting all home improvements at Harbor Bay Isle from Design Review, which would save approximately 3,000 homeowners at Harbor Bay Isle significant time and money.  Improvements exempted from Design Review must still comply with all City requirements.

 

Specifically, staff is recommending the following text be added to the list of Design Review exemptions in Section 30-37.2.b.:

 

“Improvements to existing single-family dwellings located within the Harbor Bay Isle Planned Development community that have been approved by the Community of Harbor Bay Isle Homeowners Association and determined to be consistent with the applicable Harbor Bay Development Plan.”

 

3.  Front Yard Fences Above Four Feet Tall, Arbors, and Decorative Fence Posts.

 

Staff recommends simplifying the requirements pertaining to fences and associated structures (referred to as “Barriers” in the ordinance).  Fences are currently limited to a maximum height of five feet in the front yard and eight feet in the side and rear yards.  Fences do not require Design Review and they do not require building permits unless they exceed seven feet in height.  However, a legacy provision in the fence regulations requires Planning Director approval for fences above four feet tall in front yard, arbors, and decorative fence posts.  To simplify the requirements, staff recommends deleting the requirement for Planning Director approval and specifying a maximum height limit of ten (10) feet for arbors and decorative fence posts in setback areas. 

 

Specifically, staff is recommending the following revisions be made to the fence regulations in Section 30-5.14.d.:

 

“Exceptions to Limitations on Barrier Height:

1. Barriers otherwise limited to three (3′) feet in height may be vertically extended up to four (4′) feet five (5’) feet in height with see-through style fencing material.

2. Barriers otherwise limited to three (3′) feet in height may be vertically extended up to five (5′) feet with see-through style fencing material, subject to approval by the Planning Director, who shall consider the compatibility of the fence design with its site and surrounding uses.

3. Barriers otherwise limited to six (6′) feet in height may be extended up to eight (8′) feet in height with see-through style fencing material.

43. Barriers located within a permitted building envelope outside of required setbacks may be extended up to the allowed building height in that zone as permitted by this chapter.

54. Arbors and decorative fence posts located within a required setback shall not exceed ten (10’) in height. subject to approval by the Planning Director, who shall consider the compatibility of the arbor or fence post with the barrier, its site and surrounding uses.”

 

B.                      Administrative, Technical, and Clarifying Amendments

 

The following text amendments consist primarily of administrative cleanups and an attempt to clarify existing City interpretations and practices.  These amendments do not change the existing interpretations and practices and are intended only to make the code provisions clearer and more user-friendly.

 

4. Updating the Table of Zoning Designations.

 

Staff recommends updating the Table of Zoning Designations to include the Alameda Point sub-districts that were inadvertently omitted during the adoption of the Alameda Point master plan and rezoning.  This update also includes minor formatting corrections to other zoning designations to ensure consistency throughout the ordinance.

 

5. Definition of Floor Area for Determining Required Off-Street Parking.

 

The parking requirement for single family homes is currently two spaces for homes under 3,000 square feet in size and three spaces for homes 3,000 square feet and larger.  When a home that does not provide the required number of parking spaces is expanded, one additional parking space must be created on the property for every 750 square feet of floor area added until the parking requirement is met. 

 

Expansions commonly take place in the form of constructing an addition, but it can also occur through the conversion of existing basement or attic space.  When the conversion of the basement or attic into living space occurs, a question often arises on whether the existing basement or attic is counted as new floor area or credited as existing floor area.  In practice, staff has counted basement and attic areas as existing floor area only when the space meets the minimum legal ceiling height of seven feet per the building code.  For instance, a basement with a legal ceiling height would be considered existing usable floor area, regardless of how that space is currently used.  Conversely, a basement crawl space with less than the minimum ceiling height which must be excavated in order to accommodate usable space will be considered new floor area.  Generally speaking, when physical alteration is necessary to achieve the legal ceiling height, then that area will be counted as new floor area for purposes of determining off-street parking.

 

Specifically, staff recommends the following revisions be made to the floor area definition in Section 30-7.5.a:

 

“Floor Area.  The total area of all the floors measured from the exterior faces of the building, including hallways, interior and exterior stairways, storage rooms, etc., but excluding any basement or attic area with ceiling heights of less than seven (7’) feet.  Unless otherwise specified by this section, unroofed storage and/or sales areas for non-residential uses shall for the purposes of calculating parking requirements be converted to floor area at a ratio of five (5) square feet of unenclosed area to one (1) square foot of floor area. Roofed storage and/or sales areas shall be treated as buildings for the purpose of calculating floor area.”

 

6. Parking Spaces in Existing Residential Driveways.

 

When additional off-street parking is triggered by the expansion of a residence, the ordinance allows homeowners to count the driveway as off-street parking spaces.  The code currently allows tandem parking for a single unit (Section 30-7.9.d.), but it also requires up to three parking spaces for houses over 3,000 square feet in size.  Staff proposes an amendment that clarifies up to three parking spaces would be permitted in tandem serving a single dwelling unit.

 

Specifically, staff recommends the following text revisions be made to Section 30-7.2 Accessory Parking Spaces Required:

 

“Dwelling Unit Additions-Notwithstanding the requirements of subsection 30-20.4(a), when a dwelling unit is enlarged on a property that is not in compliance with the minimum required parking, an additional parking space shall be added for each 750 square feet of added floor area until compliance is achieved.  An existing driveway may be considered as up to three parking spaces(s) in tandem serving a single dwelling unit if the proposed space(s) conform to the requirements of subsections 30-7.8, and 30-7.9. Conformance with subsection 30-7.10.a is not required.”

 

7. Perimeter Landscape Requirements for Residential Parking.

 

Unenclosed parking spaces located along property boundaries, adjacent to buildings and other structures are currently required to provide a three-foot landscaped buffer.  Driveways are also required to maintain a one-foot landscaped separation between adjacent structures.  Section 30-7.18 recognizes the use and extension of driveways not conforming to this landscaping requirement whenever an addition to a single-family home or the addition of the dwelling unit occurs.  Staff recommends clarifying this provision to also allow increasing the number of parking spaces on single family residential properties without the required three-foot landscaped buffer. 

 

Specifically, staff is recommending the following revisions be made to the Use and Extension of Non-Conforming Driveways and Perimeter Landscaping regulations in Section 30-7.18.:

 

“Existing residential driveways that are non-conforming to the minimum widths prescribed by subsection 30-7.9.f.1., and/or the minimum perimeter landscaping for unenclosed parking spaces, backup areas, and driveways prescribed by subsection 30-10.a.3., may remain and may be extended with the existing non-conforming dimensions at such time the property is further improved with small scale development, which includes but is not limited to additions to existing single family uses or the construction of an additional dwelling to existing single family uses, subject to the approval of the Community Development Planning & Building and Public Works Directors.

 

8.  Vesting of Design Review Approvals.

 

Current code specifies that Design Review approvals shall expire in two years unless “construction has commenced under valid permits.”  What constitutes “construction has commenced” has been the subject of much debate.  Staff recommends amending the language to allow vesting only when the project successfully passes the first construction inspection.  

 

Specifically, staff recommends the following revisions be made to the Expiration and Extension provisions for Design Review in Section 30-37.6:

 

“Design Review approval shall expire two (2) years from the initial date of approval unless construction has commenced under valid permits and approval of the first construction inspection by the City.  Design Review approval may be extended upon application for up to two (2) additional years from the date of expiration.”

 

ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW

 

The proposed zoning code amendments are categorically exempt under California Environmental Quality Act Section 15305 - Minor Amendments to Land Use Limitations. 

 

PUBLIC NOTICE AND COMMENTS

 

Because these Zoning Code amendments are citywide in nature, the public hearing was advertised in the newspaper and posted on the City website.  The proposed amendment involving the Design Review exemption of Harbor Bay Isle was coordinated with the Community of Harbor Bay Isle Homeowners Association.

 

RECOMMENDATION

 

Hold a public hearing and recommend by motion that the City Council adopt the Draft Ordinance amending Chapter 30 of the Alameda Municipal Code (Exhibit 1).

 

 

Respectfully submitted,

 

 

 

Allen Tai

Planning Services Manager

 

Exhibit:                     

1.                     Draft Ordinance