Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sierra Club on County Code Variances

In a letter to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors a couple of years back, available on line here, the local Sierra Club's Kevin Collins voiced many of our concerns about how planning policy can undermine the environmental protection safeguarding Schwan Lake and the neighborhood near it.

...the riparian protection ordinance is subject to excessive and systematic exceptions. These exceptions to the ordinance are based upon a “lowest common denominator” standard in which the worst house sites, in regard to compliance with this ordinance, become the example for other houses choosing to build in the setback or otherwise degrade it. When the County begins to enforce these environmental codes then they can begin to legitimately assert that they have some meaning in regard to environmental quality and protection.

The real and oddly unspoken reasons for the complexity of the County Planning and Zoning Code is related to the simple fact that Santa Cruz County was largely subdivided before there was any real consideration of what constituted a sensible building parcel.

Your predecessors in this County's government allowed thousands of absurd and problematic lots to be created a century ago. Many of these lots were built upon, and now these houses are in bad locations, such as the scores of homes slowly falling into the San Lorenzo River.

Many homeowners on these countless sub-standard lots cannot enjoy all the privileges they would otherwise enjoy if they owned imaginary large, flat, roomy building sites, with ample parking, and extensive septic system expansion areas, where they could reasonably continue enlarging their homes and building arrays of charming rented accessory dwelling units. This “special circumstances” language sets a “lowest common denominator” standard for compliance. This situation holds sway all across the rural areas of this county and renders the Riparian Corridor Ordinance moot and irrelevant in many situations.

In other words, if neighboring houses are only 20 feet from a stream bank, then all expanded, new, or re-built houses seeking their own riparian exception in that vicinity can have the same privilege to invade and nullify the Riparian Corridor Ordinance. This is a continuous process that we have never seen addressed.
[Variances ought] NEVER apply to undeveloped parcels, newly created sub-division lots OR to any parcels with environmental restrictions such as, sensitive habitats, geologic hazards, riparian corridors or slopes over 30% etc.
 For areas inside the Urban Services Line, establish an absolute limit upon impermeable surface coverage percentages; this means building roof area plus hard pack parking area vs. open vegetated ground. Thus if the buildings are too tightly packed and there is too much asphalt and other hard surface drainage, then parcels in a defined assessment area of perhaps 2 acres around the proposal, would not be eligible for these “minor exceptions”. No individual building or a development of several+ structures in any zone district should have the benefit of all these exceptions in the same development permit. Otherwise you convert “minor exceptions” into a broad change to site standards in general. The “minor exceptions” become basic code in practice.

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