City planners offered mixed opinions as they weighed in on a controversial collection of changes proposed to ease the ability of Belmont property owners to remodel their homes.
Parking requirements, encouraging secondary units, single-family home design review guidelines and removing a cap on home size were hot-button issues the Planning Commission discussed at a special meeting Tuesday.
This was the commission’s second meeting to discuss what type of feedback it would submit to the City Council on the proposal to update the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances. The commission is slated to continue reviewing the proposed amendments and environmental document April 7. Eventually, the City Council will review and possibly adopt the proposed changes fashioned by the work between city staff and a subcommittee comprised of Councilman Charles Stone and Vice Mayor Eric Reed.
At its previous meeting, the commission unanimously agreed to support creating a tiered review system whereby simple additions would be reviewed at a staff level and larger projects would make their way to a commission hearing.
Compared to other cities, Belmont has the lowest threshold to trigger a single-family design review as the commission considers any addition of 400 square feet or more, has the strictest parking requirements and the least objective review criteria, according to Senior Planner Damon DiDonato.
Commissioners wholeheartedly agreed on the need to ease Belmont’s guidelines that make remodels difficult for growing families. However, they differed on to what extent the city might reduce parking requirements and whether to completely eliminate a cap on home sizes, particularly as the city has one of the more stringent 3,500-square-foot limits for most properties regardless of lot size.
Commissioners heard from numerous members of the public with varying opinions on the proposed changes at meetings and via written correspondence. The range includes citizens with grave concerns oversized McMansions will sprout up in the city while others pleaded to be able to more easily expand their homes to account for growing families.
“I can recognize the frustration of wanting to keep things the way they are and there’s a proposal where things could change drastically. But I think for many folks it’s going to change in a positive way,” said Commission Vice Chair Davina Hurt, according to a video of the meeting.
How big can you go?
The proposal to do away with a cap on home sizes aroused concern among the public, despite the fact that six out of the eight surrounding cities don’t have maximums and the two that do — San Mateo and Burlingame — have much higher limits.
Staff said the 3,500-square-foot and 4,500-square-foot caps in place for different neighborhoods seemed arbitrary and the commission unanimously agreed on amending it. Some were comfortable with eliminating the cap completely because other restrictions, such as on grading and massing, keep a limit on home sizes. Still, others felt implementing a limit based on lot size and slope would better suit the community’s concerns.
“There’s some sentimental value to be said for having something that says ‘well no, we’re not going to let people build whatever they want,’” said Planning Commissioner Amy Goldfarb.
Hurt said she doesn’t think removing the cap will greatly influence density within the city and other commissioners expressed hope it would allow more property owners to improve their homes and bring them up to code.
State law requires cities to allow second units and Belmont already permits certain property owners to construct an addition up to 30 percent of the main home’s size but no more than 1,200 square feet, so long as they live on site and provide parking.
The proposal would decrease the need for owners to secure a conditional use permit to those who have lots smaller than 5,000 square feet, require just one parking space and allow the units to be up to 50 percent of the main house but no more than 1,200 square feet.
Under the city’s proposed Housing Element, a state-mandated planning document whereby Belmont must show it can accommodate growth over the next several years, second units are encouraged to help provide more affordable housing.
The commission agreed easing the restrictions on secondary units would support that goal and, although state law has allowed for the increase for nearly a decade, argued very few have actually been built.
“I agree that there’s been a disproportionate amount of attention paid on something like this. It’s provocative, but the reality of almost 15 years on record in Belmont, people … are not doing this,” Commission Chair Doug Kim said.
Most agreed second units should provide at least one additional parking spot on sight, with some commissioners suggesting the number of bedrooms correlate to the number of spaces.
Where to park
The seven commissioners agreed parking requirements, particularly for smaller remodels, should be amended, but to what degree proved controversial.
Currently, new homes are required to provide four spaces, including two within a garage. Many remodels, regardless if bedrooms aren’t being added, also require parking upgrades.
The proposed amendments would reduce the requirement to three spaces, only one of which must be covered for remodels and two that must be covered for new homes or when second units are added.
About half of the commissioners sought to keep the four-car requirement for new homes and most agreed to reducing the requirements for smaller remodels, particularly as many of Belmont’s mid-century tract-style houses only have one-car garages and can be expensive to upgrade.
“With the parking issue, we do have narrow streets in Belmont and walking and biking in the streets is a challenge and it’s an existing problem,” Goldfarb said. “For home renovations, this is where it got tough, because so many homes have a one-car garage and that’s really the challenge for many families.”
All agreed a major concern is keeping people from parking on the street and the diversity of Belmont’s neighborhoods offer unique challenges. Commissioners Steve Simpson and Kerry MacDonald also urged that if homeowners opt to use carports to satisfy covered parking requirements, the space be counted toward the home’s floor area ratio so as not to incentivize people against building garages.
The commissioners were extremely supportive of creating a companion document to the proposed ordinances that would outline more specific objective review criteria.
While their input is set to be received by the council by next week, creating single-family Residential Design Criteria would require another public review process and commissioners wanted to ensure they’re heavily involved in creating the new guidelines.
The commission is set to continue its discussion next week, including the proposed amendments to the tree ordinance that would set rules for tree removal, as well as an environmental review of the changes. The public is encouraged to continue to provide input online and it’s unlikely there will be another comment opportunity during the meeting’s continuation next week.
For more information about the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances visit http://belmont.gov/city-hall/community-development/planning-and-zoning/zoning-text-amendments.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106