When the City says Yes to Construction Plans

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RON WYNN

The cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, and Culver City are all very strict with building codes and enforcement. There are many issues and moving parts including city council intervention. Development and Anti-Mansionization, for example is one of the issues always coming up. There has been a lot of pull back on the size of homes which dwarf existing homes in the neighborhood, take away their air space, and cause a change of character to the neighborhood overall. 

Because of much neighbor and homeowner association lobbying, cities including West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and parts of Los Angeles have memorialized the voice of the neighborhood using majority vote to modify the basic city required guidelines, with additional guidelines referencing the roof pitch and structure envelope designed to reduce the “box like” architecture, with some associations lobbying to support greater, others to support fewer restrictions. 

It is rare that a developer would try to take advantage by not getting city approvals even though neighbors often say, “I think the developer is not in city code compliance”. The city scrutinizes with inspections, and developers are watched from grading to completion carefully.

Many homeowner associations and city organizations will lobby to take precedence over the codes and will ask for subsequent approvals. Venice for example, has a very strong and aggressive neighborhood council who will go to extra lengths to be sure all houses meet neighborhood criteria and that historic preservation be respected. 

Venice’s city council as a sidebar encourages neighborhood safety, low income housing, walkability, bike lanes, right of ways, and preservation of natural plant growth. These groups can be extremely powerful insisting on meeting after meeting with justification and objectives to meet what they deem “for the good of the neighborhood”. That said, many developers decide just not to fight anymore. 

Specifically, neighbors will often fight for corrective measures relating to specific non-code related issues, i.e., eye sores and noise deterrents to the neighborhoods. Things that have come up recently are air conditioning condensers, fences, gates, and unattractive storage areas. Noisy air conditioning units make the argument even stronger. 

Though the city may not have specific codes preventing these things, homeowner associations can vote to amend the existing CC and R’s at any time. Neighborhood covenants, conditions, and restrictions may limit the height of a structure if it interferes with an open-air view of a homeowner’s property on other adjacent streets. 

This can be verified in the CC & R documents. CC & R’s can also demand certain styles of architecture and prohibit the use of certain lower standard construction materials and facades. Roofing materials can also be mandated as acceptable or not acceptable even though they meet applicable city codes and safety standards. An HOA can even insist on paint colors, fencing, patio covers, and exterior landscaping; they can even insist that cars, boats, campers and trailers not be parked on your driveway for over 5 days, for example. Architectural review boards can enforce setbacks as stated in CC &R’s in the event it is beyond city codes.

Also, the city might per code allow shrubs and trees without a height limit, but a homeowner association might disallow the height of a tree if they believe it can cause a blind spot, which could impact the safety of a biker or pedestrian. An HOA can even disallow a paint color if it does not conform to the neighborhood theme, but again, this power must be clearly documented in the specific neighborhood’s CC & R’s. The use or non-use of grass or synthetic grass comes up often in CC and R’s and is a specific item of discussion in some cities as it pertains to water preservation. It is interesting how there is often contradiction with one city not allowing synthetic grass and in other cities making it mandatory if grass is called out in a landscape plan. 

Also, another item that is enforced in most of the local cities is the diversion of water for drainage. In Los Angeles for example, water is required to drain back on the property and away from the street. This is a water preservation enforced code. 

Often, neighbors will object to the rain garden ditch because it is not often attractive, but the city will enforce it nevertheless. It is important to know which items are coded, which cities enforce these items, and which do not.  Specifically, each city has their own guidelines for water conservation and for mansionization. The best website to go to is Zimus for Los Angeles, but for other cities you must go to the specific city for their respective guidelines which are posted online under building codes.