Back in March, we reported on yet another case of a “remodeling” project – at 217 S. Citrus Ave. – that looked to neighbors much more like a full demolition, which would require much different kinds of city permitting and notices than a simple remodel. At the time, people pointed to the project as an example of why newer, clearer definitions of “remodel” and “demolition” are needed by the city (an idea that was backed up by City Council Member Paul Koretz, who earlier that month introduced a motion to address to clarify the definitions).
As time goes on, however, and neighbors continue to follow the work being done at 217 S. Citrus, it is proving instructive about other rather murky facets of the city permitting process, and a good case study in why even the new Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, Interim Control Ordinances and R1 zoning specifications recently enacted by the city have not fully addressed all the kinks in the city’s permitting process, and all the opportunities there seem to be for applicants to skirt the intent of the laws.
To provide some background in this case, the house most recently standing at 217 S. Citrus was built in the 1980s – a rather early example of up-sizing and “mansionization” in the neighborhood. Then, in 2015, the owners applied for permits to remodel a second-story closet and deck over the attached garage. Work began on the property, and the owners moved out…but then work stalled. It resumed again early this year, however, and a new permit was filed to convert a portion of the first floor to a covered patio.
But instead of just some new construction, a lot more demolition took place, until the property looked like this in late March:
After complaints from neighbors that the scope of the work seemed to exceed the remodeling permits on file, and after a subsequent inspection of the site by the Department of Building and Safety, work was stopped briefly, until the owners applied for and received permits for work that was already underway, including revisions to the home’s framing and floor plan, removal and replacement of termite-damaged floor joists and roof rafters, and removal of part of the roof structure to install a new sprinkler system. (These were labeled “supplemental” permits, though none of the items mentioned in them seem directly related to the original permits for closet and deck work on the garage, or to the permit for converting a portion of the house to a patio.)
And then the nearly total reconstruction continued…with some neighbors noting that the newly emerging structure seemed to be at least as big, if not even larger, than the building it replaced.
This raised even more eyebrows because, since the home’s construction in the 1980s, local zoning rules have evolved. And they’ve continued to change even as the current construction project has been underway. In fact, while the old building comprised 4,634 square feet on a 6,763 square foot lot…a new project of that size would no longer be allowed if freshly permitted today.
To back up a bit, when the house most recently at 217 S. Citrus was built in the 1980s, no specific mansionization protections were in force. In 2008, the city did adopt a Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, but it proved to contain a number of loopholes that allowed over-sized home replacements to continue.
So to help protect older neighborhoods, the city enacted an Interim Control Ordinance for several neighborhoods, including Citrus Square, where 217 S. Citrus is located, giving them some measure of protection against further mansionization, including holding new homes to 50% of the lot size, while the city worked on revisions to the BMO.
And then in March of this year, a new Baseline Mansionization Ordinance was enacted, along with several new, even more restrictive, R1 zones…one of which – the R1-V3-RG zone – was chosen by Citrus Square residents for their neighborhood. The new R1-V3-RG zone limits the floor area ratio on local lots to 35-40% of the lot, depending on lot size. And the new zone also requires homes to have garages at the rear of the property, not the front (as the 1980s house at 217 S. Citrus had).
So which set of regulations now governs the project currently underway at 217 S. Citrus…and would it be considered legal or illegal under those specific rules?
According to Bennett Wolk, who lives on the block, and who has been leading efforts by a group of neighbors trying to find out what is going on at the property…the answers to these questions have been almost impossible to figure out.
Because the current project at 217 S. Citrus has been in the works for so long, with a chain of permits dating back to October 2015 and new permits as recent as April, 2017, the situation is not at all clear. Should the project be held to the new R1 zone rules, which would mandate the reconstructed house be only about 2,908 square feet (much smaller than the old 4,634 square feet)…and which would also require that the garage be moved from the front to the back of the property?
Should it be controlled by the former ICO rules, which would limit the building size to 50% of lot size (larger than the current R1 standard, but still smaller than the building that was supposedly being “remodeled”)?
Or would it still be grandfathered under the old BMO rules, pre-dating even the ICO, which allowed the previous 4,634 square feet, and maybe even something larger?
Also, which permits and permit dates would determine which set of rules were in effect – the original closet and garage deck remodel permits from 2015? The 2017 permit to convert a protion of the first floor to a covered patio? Or the supplemental permits for joist replacement and sprinkler installation, which were filed after the new R1 zone went into effect early this year? Or something else entirely?
And why are there still no demolition or full re-building permits on file, when – by this time – all that was standing were a few old framing beams from the garage (which were fairly quickly replaced with new wood)?
Wolk, who says “I’m kind of the bad guy – everyone calls me” when there’s a problem on the block – has been trying to get some answers from the Department of Building and Safety, City Council District 5, and other city departments. But the process has been slow, he says, and the answers confusing.
Finally, after several months of back and forth phone calls and e-mails, Wolk and several other neighbors met last week with Faisal Alserri, Senior Planning Deputy for City Council Member Paul Koretz, to discuss the project.
At the meeting, says Wolk, and in an e-mail beforehand, Alserri told the neighbors that he believes – based on the information available to him so far – that the ICO rules should be governing the current project…but he also noted that the Department of Building and Safety would be the official authority.
That didn’t really help, however, because as Wolk has discovered, when DBS investigates project complaints and makes a determination, it does not publish the details of the investigation, and publicly notes only whether the investigation has been concluded or ongoing, with no further details. So far, two investigations have been concluded at 217 S. Citrus, and DBS has concluded in those investigations that the work being done is legal. But it has not provided information about which set of rules it’s following for the permits and inspections. (A third investigation is still ongoing.)
Also, as the Buzz researched the history of this project, we found that even Building and Safety’s notes, on the recent applications themselves, seem confusing, if not downright contradictory.
For example, a comment on the February 8, 2017 permit for the patio and interior remodel seems to indicate that the older, original BMO rules are in charge. Specifically, that the “lot is subject to the [original] BMO RFA,” and that the total square footage allowed under that rule would be the original 4,634 square feet.
Another comment, however, on the March 31, 2017 supplemental permit, states that “a minimum 50% of the existing exterior side walls along the side yard to remain in order to maintain non-conforming rights to the required side yeard,” and “a minimum 50% of the existing roof assembly to remain in order to maintain non-conforming rights in regard to the RFA.” (As the above photo shows, far less than 50% of any walls or roof remained at that point, which would indicated that the “remodeled” building would lose its right to be as large as its former self.)
And, finally, a comment on the April 11 supplemental permit for the new sprinkler system contradicts the March note, saying, “…in regards to the non-conforming RFA…the code does not limit to 50% remaining for projects outside the Hillside Area, and therefore more than 50%of the building can be removed and replaced. Fire sprinklers are required (removing more than 75% of the existing roof assembly).”
Wolk said he was also surprised to learn in the meeting with Alserri that it’s not actually the dates that permits were applied for or issued that govern building projects – as he and his neighbors had assumed – but instead the date that a project’s plans were first submitted to the City’s Plan Check system. And the Plan Check system, unlike the very public Department of Building and Safety online permit registry, does not make plan submission data public or easily findable, even to other city groups like the city council.
So, in this case, and others like it, it can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to know when plans were first submitted, and, thus, which set of zoning rules were in effect at the time…and which rules would continue to govern the construction process once it starts.
Additionally, Wolk said he and the neighbors have learned that after having plans approved through the Plan Check system, an applicant has 18 months to apply for permits and act on the plans, before the plan approval expires. Applicants also have the option of applying for as many as three six-month extensions to the plan expiration date, which could give them a full three years from plan submission to permitting and construction. And, to draw things out even further, applicants have up to two years from the time they get their permits to begin construction work.
So that means that although several local neighborhoods – including Citrus Square, La Brea-Hancock and Larchmont Heights – recently gained new protections against demolitions and oversize construction under the new R1 zones passed this year, they could still face a number of demolitions and oversized constructions that have been in the planning process for as long as five years. And those older projects may be still be governed by either the old loophole-filled BMO, or the Interim Control Ordinance that filled the gap between the old BMO and the new R1 zones, depending on the original Plan Check submission date.
And to further complicate matters, it may not always be easy to find out – as with 217 S. Citrus – which rules are in effect for which projects. A project that starts today, or next week, or even next year, may still be covered by either the old ICO rules…or the even older, and much more permissive, old BMO rules.
In sum, Wolk said, this project has been very surprising to him and his neighbors…and a big “learning experience” for everyone involved. “It would be very helpful and beneficial to all those involved,” he said, “if specific information about a construction project was more readily available on the LADBS website. For instance, the date of Plan submission, what the Plan scope of work is, what square footage is planned, what Zone ordinance applies at the time of the Plan submission, as well as any other pertinent information. Residents just want to make sure that everyone is playing by the same rules and having this information available and transparent would be a step in the right direction.”
Wolk went on to note that such transparency “would also probably reduce the number of complaints that are filed through the LADBS website, which would save LADBS a lot of time and resources. Many complaints are currently filed because residents do not have the specific information about construction projects to know if the work being done is in compliance with the proper zone ordinances, etc.”
[Note: this story has been updated to clarify/correct some of the timeline and permit details, and to add the concluding quotes from Mr. Wolk.]