What Changes Matter In Hills Zoning

Although this seems like a snooze subject, the City of Oakland’s planners have been studying zoning refinements for years and hope to implement some improvements by 2011.  We’re at a stage where some adjustments to their proposals are still possible.

Our planners thoughtfully and patiently shared proposed changes for residential and commercial districts in the hills, at this Tuesday’s public meeting.  As a community service, let us attempt to shake down which parts mattered most for renovators and builders.

Adding Hills Regulations

The Oakland Hills would receive “Residential – Hillside” codes based on lot size.  The smallest zone, RH-4 (nee R-30), was redefined from lots under 5,000 square feet to lots under 6,500 (<20 percent slope) or 8,000 (>20 percent slope) square feet.  Although many lots and homes would become non-conforming, they get grandfathered status here – so no worries.

One new regulation would control Floor Area Ratios or FARs – the home’s total square feet vs. total lot size.  To prevent McMansion problems, the city proposed ratios and the smallest one might need work.  For lots under 5,000 square feet, the proposed caps were 2,000 square feet or .55 (55 percent) FARs – though Montclarions recommended .50 based on what other Bay Area cities do.

Another zoning addition would relate to Lot Coverage for homes with 20 percent-plus slopes.  For RH-4 lots, this regulation translated to 40 percent.  And for lots under 5,000 square feet, homes would be permitted up to 2,000 square feet as well.  While Montclarions applauded this footprint zoning, the 2,000 square foot exception was raised as a red flag.

Fixing Hills Regulations

Some proposed changes made good sense, including the newly-proposed Lot Height regulations.  In upslope lots, there’s a max height of 24 feet above the edge of the property line.  So if your home were built, say, 12 feet uphill, that prevented you from building a two-story home.  This change would measure from grade, which means the base of the home rather than property line below.

Downsloping homes needed some attention as well, because of many variances approved on homes constructed during this past decade.  The zoning changes would officially add two feet to wall and roof heights as the hills steepen, for homes built on 20-39, 40-59 and 60+ percent slopes.  This fix made sense to Montclarions hearing the details, last Tuesday.

Altering Village Zoning

Montclair Village has been considered an established commercial district, with a selective range of pedestrian-oriented retail.  Most of our central core was zoned “C-27,” while other shopping districts like Dimond, Rockridge and Lakeshore were “C-31” instead.  There were no cries for Village zoning changes.

Still, city planners wanted to create a new “CN-1” zone in the proposed update.  We asked the planners why and they didn’t have a direct response, but explained the minor differences.  Our take is that planners just wanted to eliminate our outlier zone and create consistency among pedestrian districts.

This new zoning would allow conditional use permits for additional business types like custom manufacturing or research services, possibly triggering unintended consequences down the line.  The Montclair Village Association (MVA) continues to provide oversight in our faire village, so no concerns were raised by Montclarions last Tuesday.

Speaking Up And More

Okay, we applaud you if you read this far.  Now how can you learn more or be heard?  First, there’s an “Area 1 meeting” on Monday, April 26th at North Oakland Senior Center (map) starting at 6:30 pm.  This gathering addresses a full-third of the city, including the hills.

You don’t have to wait until there’s a meeting next month.  City planners have also encouraged the public to email them right now, with any specific questions or opinions you might want to share – at zoningupdate@oaklandnet.com.

If you’re interested in diving into zoning materials, then brew a little coffee and visit the planning web site – and we suggest reading this update, residential zoning changes and hillside changes.  Last but not least, feel free to call the city planners at their update line, 510-238-7299.

Why Zoning Matters: McMansions, Anyone?

Every so often, the City of Oakland examines its zoning ordinances and locals are given an opportunity to be heard.  Our big opportunity is related to new homebuilding density footprints, as McMansions aren’t terribly practical for the hills.  It’s possible to curtail the free-for-all taking place, by adding some kind of control and clarity to home sizes.

Zoning exclusions should end

These days in Oakland, homes built on properties with a 20 percent grade are completely exempt from coverage ratios required elsewhere in the city:  the home’s footprint of square feet vs. total lot size.  Also there’s another exemption from neighborhood consistency reviews in the hills.  Simply put, we should be subject to all these zoning regulations.

Several years ago, Oakland planners recommended another measure called floor area ratios (FARs):  the home’s total square feet vs. total lot size.  We agree this is an appropriate measure which should be applied to all Oakland homes.  The planners recommended a .50 maximum (50 percent) for 5,000 square foot lot sizes or less.

Tracking and comparing FARs

Montclair neighbors have seen changes that emerged after the 1991 firestorm.  When looking at all the North Hills homes which rose from the ashes, there were noticeable density changes as average FARs rose from .35 (1993) to .52 (2005) – a big leap during a relatively short time period.

During the real estate boom, we believe similar density changes occurred in homes built throughout our hills.  The lots remained difficult to develop, and perhaps more square footage was desired by the developers to justify their projects as well as to lure prospects.  But the recession’s changed the mindset of home buyers, so there’s likely less upward pressure.

There have been some comparisons made to other Bay Area cities, and we can continue looking at lots under 5,000 square foot.  Not surprisingly, Piedmont caps at 0.50 in a pretty densely-built city.  Palo Alto drops to 0.45, while Mill Valley maxes out at .35 instead.  We’re probably most like Mill Valley, with odd lots and steep hills.

Suggested zoning regulations

We would be pleased to get any caps in place, based on what the City of Oakland explored before.  For homes that are on 5,000 square foot lots or smaller, there would be a reduction in lot coverage from 40 to 35 percent maximum.  Also there would be a brand-new floor coverage ratio set at .50 for these smallest lots, and FARs would drop for larger landholdings.

Getting some zoning in place is long overdue and the timing works well.  First, there are limited new homes getting built right now.  Additionally, Montclair homeowners seem to be supportive of zoning controls.  If you would like to weigh in, then please come to next week’s meeting with city planners – held at Montera Middle School, on Tuesday, March 23rd at 6:30pm.

More info:  Visit the Shepherd Canyon Homeowners Association site, which stores some of the zoning documents.  Next week’s meeting is hosted by the Shepherd Canyon Homeowners Association, Piedmont Pines Neighborhood Association, Montclair Village Association, Council Rep Jean Quan’s Office and the City of Oakland’s Planning Department.