Belmont property owners seeking to remodel their homes could see some procedural reprieve after the City Council voted to proceed with a litany of controversial amendments to its zoning and tree ordinances.
After nearly a year of studying and hosting public meetings on how to ease the ability for growing families to expand their homes while maintaining Belmont’s unique village character, the council unanimously approved the changes Tuesday night. Councilmembers must again vote during a May 26 meeting before most of the new rules go into effect as early as June 26.
However, there’s still more work to be done as officials will continue to develop criteria to review the design of single-family homes as well as a tree valuation schedule to determine the fees one must pay for removal or replanting.
The efforts began as staff and the council determined Belmont’s single-family home rules were arduous and didn’t provide objective review criteria.
The amendments include easing parking requirements, increasing the maximum home sizes for large lots, changing the definition of protected trees and creating a tiered system whereby city staff would review smaller projects and larger additions or new homes would be considered by the Planning Commission.
Developed through a subcommittee comprised of Vice Mayor Eric Reed and Councilman Charles Stone, along with city staff, the rules were discussed by the Planning Commission, Parks and Recreation Commission as well as the City Council over the course of eight meetings while arousing strong and varied opinions from residents.
“The issue is about giving families ways to improve their homes that will lead to better living conditions,” resident Scott Barton said according to a video of the meeting. Barton lives on an 18,000-square-foot lot but is limited by the city’s current 3,500-square-foot cap on home sizes.
Others expressed concern the rules would entice developers or speculators and lead to an increase in density.
“I’m afraid Belmont will turn into a town where McMansions are possible … streets are full of cars and neighborhoods where neighbors will be fighting over parking spaces,” said a resident who identified herself as Tran.
Others told accounts of struggling to remain in a city they love as the city’s remodel rules are restrictive and finding a new home has become difficult in a market where prices are skyrocketing.
Some residents expressed concern that the majority of residents aren’t aware of the proposed changes and asked the council to slow down. Others contend that, between social media and a new city website, the process has been much more inclusive and transparent than years past.
“A lot has changed in Belmont in the last 15 years and our zoning codes need to be brought up to date,” said resident Anne Hoffman, whose family has grown to five since moving to the city.
The council unanimously supported increasing the cap on home size to 6,000 square feet, which is still the lowest in San Mateo County and ultimately property owners will be restricted by slope and density of their lots. Reed noted his maximum allowable home size would not change with the new rules and the council agreed the amendments would allow for properties that are proportionate to lot size.
Some members of the public challenged the council and city staff for claiming the rules are intended to account for growing families while at the same time stating the new rules weren’t expected to lead to an increase in density.
“Let’s fix some of the constraints that make home renovations difficult,” Tran said. “But it’s contradictory to say bigger homes do not mean more people when you’ve told us these changes are to accommodate growing and bigger families.”
Reed contends housing and density issues are a regional problem driven by various factors.
“The density is caused by local employers adding jobs. When you add 40,000 new jobs and 3,000 new housing units, you’re either going to create demand for housing or traffic problems or both,” Reed said.
Secondary units were a controversial topic but officials stressed the city is restricted in how it regulates in-law units as they’re regulated by state laws and cannot be considered an increase in density.
Current law permits certain properties to construct secondary units up to 30 percent of the main unit but no more than 1,200 square feet. The council approved increasing the size cap to 40 percent or up to 1,200 square feet and only requiring conditional use permits for properties that are 5,000 square feet or less, instead of the law’s current 8,000 square feet.
Parking requirements for remodels and new homes will be eased to allow greater flexibility in how property owners provide covered parking.
For those without a garage, a carport can count toward the covered parking requirement that remains at four spaces for new homes but has been scaled back for smaller remodels.
In the future, the council plans to continue its discussion regarding parking and possibly consider residential permit programs or other means to incentivize people to park on their properties.
“One of the things I hope the council will do from a policy perspective, is adopt changes that lead to more cars off the street,” Councilman Warren Lieberman said.
The council also proceeded with redefining protected trees to include heritage trees which are oaks and redwoods 10 inches thick measured 2 feet off the ground, city trees and large diameter trees that are 18 inches or greater excluding eucalyptus, Monterey pine, palm and acacia.
The changes to the tree ordinance and implementing a tiered single-family design review aren’t expected to go into effect until August as staff, the Planning Commission and the City Council must continue to develop guidelines.
As city zoning ordinances are often amended as times change, the Belmont City Council will be periodically conducting a performance review of how the new rules take effect and to reassure opponents that problems would be addressed.
“If we start seeing something that’s going in a direction we don’t like … we can step in fairly quickly and change it,” Lieberman said.
Despite passionate support and dissent, the council ultimately opted to move forward with changes it felt are in the best interests of the city.
“I know that change is hard and looking at this, the world in which exists today, ‘I don’t want to see it change,’ that’s very common,” Reed said. “The current zoning ordinances that we have in place, many are too restrictive … What we’re doing here today, we’re not rewriting the rules, we’re simply trying to move things closer to the center.”
Visit http://belmont.gov/city-hall/community-development/planning-and-zoning/zoning-text-amendments for more information about the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106