Easing the ability for Belmont property owners to improve their homes gained traction Tuesday as the City Council moved to support a range of suggestions that include reducing parking requirements for remodels, permitting larger homes and amending its rules to support construction of in-law units.
The proposed amendments to the city’s Zoning and Tree ordinances has aroused some controversy among those who fear Belmont’s character could change, but is proceeding with support from the council as well as the Planning and Parks and Recreation commissions.
After discussing the amendments at its Tuesday meeting, the council scheduled a public hearing and possible vote May 12.
The proposal, created by city staff and a council subcommittee comprised of Vice Mayor Eric Reed and Councilman Charles Stone, has changed after significant input from the community and city officials provided over the course of eight meetings throughout the last year.
“We believe that the proposed amendments would better meet the needs of Belmont,” said Senior Planner Damon DiDonato, according to a video of the meeting. “They would conform with the General Plan policies and goals, and that there would not be any significant environmental impacts resulting from the project.”
What the council is moving toward
Officials initiated the amendments as they seek to ease the city’s planning process to make room for growing families who may not have the luxury of relocating in an increasingly expensive housing market.
The council showed unanimous support for creating a tiered system to review single-family home projects that would include smaller additions being considered by staff and larger additions as well as new homes heading to a Planning Commission hearing — currently the seven-member commission reviews projects as small as a 400-square-foot addition.
Councilmembers also agreed to increase the current cap on home sizes, which is 3,500 or 4,500 square feet depending on location, by allowing up to 6,000-square-foot residences on certain properties. The max, which is one of the lowest in the county and was modeled after San Mateo, would ultimately be determined by a property’s size and slope.
City staff stressed that secondary units, which have been a controversial topic among residents, are regulated by state law and cannot be considered as an increase in density.
Belmont currently allows two-bedroom in-law units to stand up to 1,200 square feet or 30 percent of the main property. Few property owners have constructed them over the last eight years and staff doesn’t anticipate a flurry of applications should the rules pass, DiDonato said.
Although the subcommittee originally suggested increasing the maximum to 50 percent of a home size, the proposal was amended and the council concurred to increase it to 40 percent.
Permitting them on smaller properties was encouraged by reducing the requirement for a conditional use permits to lots smaller than 5,000 square feet, instead of the law’s current 8,000 square feet.
Where to park?
Parking requirements are a main focus of the city’s efforts as modest additions under the current rules frequently compel the construction of a two-car garage — an amenity lacking among many of the older homes.
“The two-car requirement means a lot of the housing stock goes unimproved. I’m convinced of that, because the two-car garage is too onerous,” Reed said.
In general, the amendments would allow property owners more flexibility in how they provide parking by allowing some carports to count as covered spaces, instead of garages and permitting tandem instead of side-by-side parking, DiDonato said.
Officials supported reducing the requirements for remodels while basing it on the number of bedrooms being added.
The council did agree, however, to keep the requirement that newly constructed homes furnish four parking spots, two of which must be covered.
Evolving new rules and considering impacts
DiDonato said staff reviewed extensive data before proposing the changes to parking, home size, second units and other amendments.
Information from the Association of Bay Area Governments, Belmont’s Planning Division and U.S. Census data was considered before staff ultimately concluded there would be no significant environmental impacts if the amendments are approved, DiDonato said.
National data show that over the last 30 years, home sizes have grown but family size has actually decreased while regional data outline families now own fewer cars than prior years.
“There’s no evidence that larger homes are going to generate more traffic, more noise, more greenhouse gasses than smaller homes,” DiDonato said.
City officials acknowledged the public has concerns, but emphasized any changes could be subject to review later.
“We’re making these changes based on a lot of work and a lot of data and a lot of effort by a lot of people in determining what we think at this point in time,” Councilwoman Cathy Wright said. “I just think we need to be cognizant, we can visit this in a year and say ‘this isn’t working.’”
A range of opinions have sprouted in response to the proposed amendments with some predicting oversized McMansions would pop up on small lots and others speaking about their struggle to accommodate growing families.
Only a small constituency spoke on Tuesday; nearly all were in favor of the changes and some stressed the rules’ potential to help address a lack of affordable housing in the county.
On top of providing comment online, the community will have another chance to engage in the process by speaking publicly about the proposed changes at the meeting next month.
“Frankly, I think it’s a great departure from what was often happening in the 2000s time frame … we didn’t have the benefit of having meetings on video, things like blogs, Nextdoor.com, Patch, to allow people to have a lot of warning and opportunities to become aware of what’s happening in our local government,” said resident Tim Hoffman. “What’s happening now is much more open than the process that was happening even 10 years ago”
For more information about the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances visit http://belmont.gov/city-hall/community-development/planning-and-zoning/zoning-text-amendments.
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