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Core issue behind “mansion-ization”

I was recently asked, “Since San Marino is also having complaints about “mansionization,” isn’t the real issue that some people just don’t like change and label it “mansionization?” No. The issue concerning “mansionization” is not about change, it is about who has the authority to decide what should be built in a particular neighborhood. The real question is, who should “decide” to what tastes a house will be built to fit?

April Verlato

Editor’s note: This blog is authored by April A. Verlato, Attorney at Law in Downtown Arcadia, where last year she was named president of the Arcadia Downtown Improvement Association by the board of directors. In the past year she was also named Chairperson of the Architectural Review Board by the Highlands Homeowners’ Association. For more background summary on the issue that sparked and are referenced in this guest blog, see Editor’s Note Continued below.

In the Highlands and the other four Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) in Arcadia, the residents voted back in the 70’s to have an Architectural Review Board made up of neighbors to make that decision. The City Council adopted a Resolution (or “agreement”) with the HOAs to designate the areas as a Design Review Zone, so that anyone buying in one of these areas would know that there were special rules regarding what could be built. The Resolution outlined specific criteria that could be used to determine what was “harmonious and compatible” and it specifically stated “the ARB shall have the power to determine the compatibility with the neighborhood of the mass, scale, design and appearance of the proposed project.” Resolution 6770 was meant to grant to the residents the power and authority to define what is harmonious and compatible; that anyone who wants to “change” their house would have to get “permission” from the neighbors to do so. This has been the way new projects in the HOAs have been treated for 40 years. The Resolution is actually a very good tool for curbing neighborhood complaints of “mansionization.” A neighborhood can’t complain that they are being “mansionized” if three of their neighbors, elected by them, approved the project. But when City Council overturns a neighborhood’s denial of plans because the City Council thinks the neighborhood is being unreasonable in its determination of “compatible and harmonious,” City Council is taking away the effect and purpose of the ARB. So then you start getting complaints about being “mansionized” because now someone other than the neighborhood is deciding what “looks right”.

To say that the size of the house is allowed by code, so, therefore, the ARB cannot deny on the basis of size, is wrong. Size is one of the attributes of “harmony and compatibility.” Therefore, as the City Attorney confirmed, an ARB can deny because of size even if the code allows more square footage. A California Appellate Court case determined the terms of a compatibility ordinance in the city of Rolling Hills were not vague and ambiguous and that the ARB had the authority and power to determine that a patio in the back (that no one could see from the street) was not harmonious and compatible because it obstructed neighboring properties’ views. The code would have allowed the patio otherwise. The denial by the Highlands ARB of plans for new “mansions” based on the size of the new homes was valid.

There are two issues raised by the Save The Arcadia Highlands’ lawsuit.

  1. Whether or not an Environmental Impact Report is required to build the homes in the Highlands.

  2. What is the standard of review of ARB decisions on appeal before the City Council?

The City Attorney decided that the standard of review on appeal was “De Novo” which means City Council looks at the proposed project and votes according to their own opinion as to what is harmonious and compatible. I disagree with the City Attorney. I believe that the standard of review on appeal is “Abuse of Discretion” which allows only a review of the ARB’s decision to determine whether or not the ARB had grounds for their decision, not whether or not the City Council agreed with the decision. I base my opinion on a case decided by the Court of Appeals that held the review of an ARB decision in the City of Del Mar had to be under a “deferential substantial evidence test.” It is my opinion that when City Council overturns an ARB denial because they think that the project will look “harmonious and compatible,” the City Council is not following the law. And that is why a group of neighbors from the Highlands filed the lawsuit.

A ballot initiative has been proposed to set limits on the amount of square footage because much of the “mansionization” debate has been fueled by the dispute over the size of the new homes. Limits on square footage would benefit both residents and developers. The amount of square footage would be quantitative and objective, instead of the subjective term of harmonious and compatible. Everyone is going to have their opinion of what is “harmonious and compatible.” It’s a subjective term that is not easily defined. As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The issue of “mansionization” is really whose eyes are we using.

Editor’s note continued – Background on the issues noted above and impetus for this guest blog: Last week it was reported that San Marino is having political issues over complaints and challenges related to the development of large homes there. Most every Arcadia City Council meeting this year has featured passionate public comments to the Council about this issue, many of them residents who are opposed to so-called “mansion-ization,” and many of whom have cited San Marino as an example of a city that controls and limits the development of large homes to the satisfaction of those Arcadians making the comments. The author of this guest blog, April Verlato, is one of two of the most public and primary opponents of the development of homes in the Highlands and throughout Arcadia that are deemed to be too large for the size of the lot and not harmonious and compatible with surrounding homes. The issue sparked a lawsuit early this year by a newly-formed group called Save the Arcadia Highlands over two specific large homes in the Highlands approved for development by the Arcadia City Council (noted above – on Council votes of 4-1 and 3-2), one of which is next door to the home of Verlato’s family. The lawsuit halted work on those two homes, which led to the Council’s split-vote decision to indefinitely suspend a long-in-progress updating of citywide redsidential zoning codes and to limit a historical survey of Arcadia residences to exclude the Highlands. The issue also sparked a recently-proposed ballot measure spearheaded by Verlato that she mentions above. That measure, if qualified and approved following the gathering of the required number of signatures, would be placed on an upcoming election ballot.

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