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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | chapter wide

Planning Department proposes zoning changes with no environmental review

December 2009
by Kevin Collins

A series of changes has been proposed by the Santa Cruz County Planning Department that could change the zoning code in unpredictable ways. The Sierra Club opposed parts of these changes in 2007-08. The new set of important changes to the zoning code is being presented as minor; we disagree. They are not minor changes.

Zoning rules interconnect in complex ways to impact not only water resources and wildlife but virtually all environmental considerations.

County Planning is also claiming that these zoning changes are exempt from CEQA environmental review. Sierra Club disagrees with this position as well. The entire reasoning behind the California Environmental Quality Act is based upon the need for policy makers and the public to understand the potential environmental impacts of projects, including “projects” that change land use code. If Planning wants to change the code, it needs to study the consequences of the changes and not simply claim that they are “minor” and exempt from review. Also, it would be possible for an applicant to ask for several minor exceptions, which when taken together, could amount to a very big exception.

The changes themselves involve what are called “site standards” and include building height, lot coverage, setbacks from property lines, and floor area ratio, which is a standard that limits the volume of a building relative to its lot. These proposed changes also would affect solar access, accessory structures, structural encroachments, and buildings constructed without permits.

Public hearings would be eliminated

Variances from current codes require a public hearing. In order to grant a variance, a hearing is currently required wherein the reviewing body must make a set of findings. Typically, variances are only granted based upon special circumstances of the site’s geometry.

Planning is now proposing a new category of “minor exceptions” to these codes to be processed by Planning Department staff with no public hearing and notification only to adjacent houses or those directly across a street. This lack of wider public notification cuts deeply into our democratic traditions and is insufficient to protect the environment and wider neighborhood. Moreover, the “findings” necessary for staff to approve these “minor exceptions” to existing code appear subjective and open-ended creating the possibility that under the proposal virtually every “exception” requested could be granted. This is a very significant change from current regulations. The proposed new exceptions have no avenue of appeal except back to the Planning Department which granted them initially, and no possibility of higher level appeal.

Zoning code, like subdivision law, is fundamental to all other land use regulations. In many ways zoning is the most important class of regulations that determine the future physical nature of the County. Such decisions need to be made only after considerable deliberation and certainly should not be left to staff with no public review or clear right of appeal.

Historic reasons for planning complexity

There are many reasons why the Santa Cruz County planning and building codes are complex. Santa Cruz Mountain properties are earthquake and landslide prone. There is a crucial need to protect surface water supplies from septic leaks and silt accumulation in creek beds caused by landslides and building.

No building permits were required until the 1950s. Many, if not most, of the real problems people face with building permits have to do with the fact that Santa Cruz County was largely subdivided before there were any standards for the creation of residential lots. Originally the County accepted virtually all subdivision proposals without review. This foolish lack of foresight created thousands of lots that do not meet logical standards for setbacks from adjoining buildings or roads, for septic systems, and for emergency access or parking.

By the early 1970s it became clear that unbridled development in the county could result in urbanization similar to what happened in Fresno and the Santa Clara Valley.

Several reforms have occurred at the Planning Department since the 1980s. There are numerous stories about the difficulties of the permit process, but many of these stories are distortions of fact. The real problems with the planning codes should be addressed by careful analysis and revision of specific provisions, not by a general weakening of zoning standards that protect residents and neighborhoods.

Although there may be room to allow for some “minor exceptions” when remodeling on lots legally built to prior code, such as allowing a pre-existing four-foot setback to a lot line when the code has since changed to five feet, the situations covered by the proposed code changes have no such limitations. Expanding the opportunities to build upon formerly unbuildable lots is not in the public interest. The existing County code was developed to prevent new problems from arising. It is not in the public interest to develop new problematic house sites on lots that should never have been subdivided to begin with.

How to help

• Contact Kevin Collins for more information, 234-7306.
• Come to the January 25 meeting of the County Board of Supervisors where this issue will be discussed.

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