First published in the Feb. 3 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
La Cañada Flintridge streamlined the permission of accessory dwelling units in accordance with state legislation in 2020 and with suggestions from the Planning Commission and City Council, city staff applied whatever requirements it could.
The Planning Commission stood firm on those restrictions last week and voted 4-0 to deny a conditional use permit that would have allowed the construction of a two-story ADU on 1219 Journey’s End Drive, a lot that is more than 2 acres. Vice Chair Jeff McConnell recused himself from the discussion and vote because he lives near the residence.
The proposal involved the expansion and conversion of a single-story pool house into an ADU. Though it would have exceeded the 16-foot height limit by just over seven feet, city staff supported the proposed structure because the excess in height was compensated by a surplus in the setbacks and below the city’s 1,200-square-foot limit for ADUs.
City planner Chris Gjolme felt the height wouldn’t impose on surrounding residences, but a few neighbors disagreed and expressed their concerns over the size and potential invasion of privacy with a structure that has windows in the second story.
One of those neighbors, Luis Rojas, said the structure could be expanded horizontally rather than vertically, keeping it one story and not having such a tall structure visible from his backyard.
“We want to keep our privacy, and I think making everyone happy is the intent of what a city wants to do,” Rojas said. “If an owner wants to expand, expand without imposing and disrupting the peace and quiet and the privacy of other property.”
The panel ultimately agreed with the neighbors.
“I find it very difficult to imagine that there are no other opportunities to expand this accessory dwelling structure in or around the property,” Commissioner Samir Mehrotra said. “There’s a reason why accessory structures were given that height limit, and the prime reason is all these accessory structures are going to be close to someone’s property.”
The applicants made a case for the two-story ADU, arguing that expanding the one-story level is difficult because of landscaping, the garage and a greenhouse surrounding the current pool house.
“My wildest imagination couldn’t imagine that this was going to be housing for somebody other than family or friends. It’s just going to be a nice addition to the house,” said Hazen, who added that height regulation is one of the few things the city has control over, and it should be upheld.
Chair Henry Oh said that he wished the applicants and neighbors could have compromised on the proposal, but ultimately voted against the conditional use permit because of the precedent it would set.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about deviation from the code,” he said. “There is concern with setting a precedent, and we’re dealing with a large structure where there’s possibly other solutions to having this project go forward on a horizontal expansion instead of a vertical expansion, especially with the strong objection from the neighbors.”
The applicants can appeal the decision to the City Council after Feb. 10.
COMMISSIONERS DENY APPEAL TO SAVE TREE
The effort from a small group of residents to preserve a coast live oak tree on a residence looking to construct a new ADU was turned down by the Planning Commission, allowing the property owner on 5211 Harter Lane to move forward with the project.
Mark and Carolyn Dundee, Nathaniel Mellors and Tala Madani appealed a tree removal permit that allows the property owner to remove the tree, a move that was also approved by an arborist.
City staff had initially approved the request to remove two oak trees but revised its recommendation to preserve one of the trees after the footprint of the ADU changed.
The panel ultimately agreed with staff and voted, 3-2, to deny the appeal and grant a tree removal permit with McConnell and Hazen voting in favor of preserving both oak trees.
The appellants argued that the removal of the tree would impact the character of the neighborhood, quality of life, wildlife and property value.
“My worry is that there appears to be little discretion by the city when issuing permits to destroy the trees they were hired to protect,” Carolyn Dundee said.
Samuel Lee, the property owner, said that the city is requiring him to plant an additional tree to replace the one that is removed and that he has substantially more trees than his neighbors.
“All of our adjacent neighbors have swimming pools; I cannot build one because I have five massive oak trees,” he said. “All of our adjacent neighbors have very beautiful open space landscaping while I cannot have one. I cannot even plant flowers because they all die out eventually due to not enough sunlight. … I was not able to enjoy my property ever since I moved in. It is an irony as to why the owner has to sacrifice and let the neighbors benefit from it. I’m even willing to give the trees and transfer, meaning moving the actual trees to the neighbors at my cost if they’re willing to accept it.”
Commissioner Mark Kindhouse said he is not opposed to conservation of trees but did not want to infringe on a property owner’s right, a comment that Oh and Mehrotra agreed with.
“I find it prohibitive on the applicant’s part to go back and redo their plans and resubmit. There is a time loss as well on this,” Mehrotra said. “And in general, I tend to agree with the city in terms that they’re making a promise to make sure one of those oak trees is protected while they provide mitigation measures by providing an additional tree.”
McConnell and Hazen felt that the lot had enough space to reconfigure the location of the proposed 800-square-foot ADU without removing any trees.
“While I do appreciate the applicant’s statement about the enjoyment of his property around everyone, unfortunately he lives in La Cañada, where we have already passed ordinances which are clearly designed to protect coast live oaks such as these from being torn down for no other reason than convenience or [wanting] to,” said McConnell.