On tap for the next Malibu City Council meeting is a review of the phrase “neighborhood character” as a criteria in considering proposed residential developments.
As I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU and websites everywhere, the issue was dropped into the laps of the council by the planning commission, when after a protracted emotional hearing, declined to vote on a proposal for a nearly 9,000 square foot project on Portshead Road.
The project sited on a particularly large lot apparently meets the building code as calculated under Neighborhood Standards.
But being about three times the size of the 50 or so surrounding houses on Point Dume has raised the issue of neighborhood character, which, unlike neighborhood standards, cannot be quantified, and is subjective.
\To aid the council in its deliberations – what exactly is neighborhood character and how it possibly can be applied to proposed projects – planning staff has admirably prepared a report that lays out several rational. if convoluted, alternatives.
But as we have sadly observed, this fractured and frankly not particularly conversant council is not always rational. And neither was a gaggle of neighbors who testified before the commission, including a former mayor, who said the owner actually should be allowed to build anything he wanted. So much for the city’s and coastal commission’s rules and regs.
It was at that meeting that the owner passionately argued that the project should be approved. That was after shedding some crocodile tears in the social media in which he said the family was abandoning what was described as its dream house, however bloated the plans.
It was noted at the commission that the city recently had ruled against a property owner in a similar case where the proposed size of the project was legal, according to “neighborhood standards,.” However, “neighborhood character” was considered, the project labeled mansionization and rejected.
For some perspective, various sources describe neighborhood character as the ‘look and feel” of an area, in particular residential, and can be both descriptive and prescriptive. Nevertheless, along with a host of social, cultural, ecological, and economic factors, neighborhood character does shape where we live, and therefore is considered of significance in the planning process.
Meanwhile in Malibu, as a planning and design critic, I consider the city’s present neighborhood standards reasonable, detailing as it does allowable heights, size and bulk. But the problem over time has been administering them, subject to a parade of pandering neophyte politicians.
The standards are too often appealed, and permitted by a development friendly city, particularly when confronted by a well-connected facilitator and the threat of a lawsuit.
As for what exactly constitutes “neighborhood character,” it is a tough question, and I do not expect it will be easily resolved. Perhaps helpful would be applying a Supreme Court decision in 1964 I have always liked, in which Justice Potter Stewart is quoted that he could not describe pornography, adding “but I know it when I see it.” I feel the same way about neighborhood character..