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[whitespace] Planning asks council to move on design review law

San Jose--Moving one step closer toward drafting a citywide law, the Planning Commission sent a message to the City Council on Aug. 25 to move forward on an ordinance to stop the invasion of monster homes.

In a 5-1 vote, the commission recommended that the City Council initiate a process to create a new law limiting the height and the floor-area ratio of new homes and rebuilds--the first step in creating a design-review law.

If the City Council agrees that the city needs new height and floor-area ratio limits, then the Planning Commission will move forward in approving a set of design guidelines for single-family homes.

"[The commission] recognizes it's a package program, but they want to make sure they know what the council's reading is relative to changes in floor-area ratio and height before they move forward on an ordinance which involves triggers for design review," said senior planner Jean Hamilton. "If the council doesn't support the changes in floor-area ratio and height, the whole package deal is not a possibility."

Current zoning codes limit the height of single-family homes to 2 1/2 stories and 35 feet. There is no floor-area ratio limit.

Planning staff is recommending the city change the law to limit houses to two stories and 30 feet, and implement a new floor-area ratio limit.

Aside from recommending height and floor-area ratio changes to the city's current laws, planning staff also suggested changes to the proposed design-review ordinance. The proposed changes to the design review law are simply triggers, however. If these triggers are hit, construction would undergo a design review. Triggers include: all new homes; property listed on the City's Historic Resources Inventory; square footage increase of 100 percent or more; all second-story additions, and removal of more than 50 percent of the exterior walls.

These triggers, however, are contingent upon lower height limits and a floor-area ratio. While the commission supports the new triggers, they want the council's approval on new height and floor-area ratios, before sending the triggers on to the council for approval.

"This basically says let's start the ball rolling," Commissioner Jay Ross says. "What we're saying to the City Council is go ahead and decide whether or not you want to initiate this process to revise R-1 zoning [to limit floor-area ratio and height]--and, by the way, we generally approve of staff's recommended triggers. But let's say the City Council says we don't want to change R-1 zoning, then we have to revisit all the triggers. We said let's first get this rezoning issue addressed."

If the City Council does not support changes to the current law that would set new height and floor-area ratio limits as absolutes, it is likely that planning staff will incorporate the two into triggers for the design-review process.

The commission's decision came as a relief to several residents opposing the design review, and floor-area ratio and height limit proposals as they now stand.

"To me, it's an issue of architectural integrity," said Tom Browne, who recently rebuilt his Willow Glen Tudor-style home. "I have got comments from every one of my neighbors saying it's one of the best houses in Willow Glen, but under the proposed floor-area ratio limits, I would not have been able to build the current house I'm in."

Browne lives in a 2,750-square-foot home on a 6,500-square-foot lot. According to the Planning Commission's recommended floor-area ratio limits, Browne's home would have been limited to 2,625 square feet.

"I kept the front face. I designed it so if you drove by my house you would not be able to tell that I have a second story. It's a design issue, not a floor-area ratio issue."

Some opponents of the bill say limiting house size will drive property values down, and discourage young families from moving to the city's older neighborhoods.

"The proposal before you is too restrictive," Glenite Gary Jansen said, addressing the commission. "We want to generate stability in our neighborhoods and we want to make it easier for families to grow in these neighborhood. We don't want to force them to move."

But while residents debate property owners' rights and neighborhood preservation, most agree that some form of design review is needed. "Subjectivity, as you know, drags things out and causes hard feelings against people," said District 6 candidate Kris Cunningham. "Please do not put the burden on neighbors to judge other neighbors. We need a balance, but it would be a shame to go this long and not give existing neighborhoods something."

The commission's recommendation that the council look into floor-area ratio and height limitations will be passed on to the City Council on Sept. 7. The Planning Commission will continue discussion of the design review at their Sept. 8 meeting.

Information on the proposed design review law is available online at www.ci.san-jose.ca.us/planning/sjplan/.
Jessica Lyons

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Web extra to the September 2-8, 1999 issue of Metro.

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