Welcome to the Neighborhood, Part II

A brief conversation with Planning and Building Director Aldo Cervantes

In the first part of “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” The Tribune published comments from members of the city’s Design Review Committee and Planning Commission—advisory bodies tasked with residential design and development decisions in San Marino.

Committee members and commissioners were asked to share their perspectives on the dichotomy between community interests and property rights, a common theme in many DRC and Planning Commission cases.

This week, The Tribune spoke with Aldo Cervantes, the city’s planning and building director and 12-year employee of the city of San Marino, who read part one of “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”

Cervantes and his nine-person staff work with the city’s zoning codes every day. The codes are very technical, he explained, and they “don’t deal with identifying between community interests and private property rights.”

While working with the city’s zoning codes, Cervantes and his colleagues—Associate Planner Amanda Merlo and Assistant Planner Eva Choi—consider four legal findings for design review cases:

That the proposed structure is compatible with the neighborhood.

That the proposed structure is designed and will be developed in a manner which balances reasonable expectation of privacy of persons residing on contiguous properties with the reasonable expectations of the applicants to develop their property within the restrictions of [the zoning] code.

In the case of a building addition, [that] the proposal is compatible with the existing building, which includes rooflines.

That the colors and materials are consistent and match the existing building or structure.

Cervantes noted that Finding 2—maintaining privacy—can be achieved by relocating windows or landscaping that creates a screening buffer, which are both within the committee’s purview.

These kinds of changes often lead to conversations about a home’s architecture, which is an acceptable conversation for committee members to have, according to Cervantes.

“We don’t prohibit that conversation,” said Cervantes. “We see them as being healthy discussions.”

Committee members have the ability to discuss whether a home is owned by an LLC, or limited liability company, Cervantes added as an additional example.

“But when it comes to the motion, it should be based on action that’s within the law,” said Cervantes. In other words, the DRC’s motion must be in accordance with the four legal findings.

DRC members and planning commissioners have had to balance the city’s residential design guidelines and zoning codes in their discussions.

Adopted almost 20 years ago, the residential design guidelines are a 68-page document meant to “provide a clear, concise summary of the City’s design policies for projects within the City’s residential neighborhoods.”
With its many architectural and stylistic recommendations, the guidelines overlap with zoning codes twice, according to Cervantes, who noted that about 95 percent of the guidelines are not included in the zoning codes.

He added that the guidelines are a tool to help homeowners and are not intended to define development standards.

“They’re very subjective,” Cervantes said of design review actions. “Everyone has different opinions about design.”

“[An attorney] is just going to be another opinion,” added Cervantes, addressing a community member’s request to have an attorney present at DRC and planning commission meetings.

He also contrasted the design review process with the more quantitative planning commission process. When dealing with applications for variances and conditional use permits, Cervantes explained, there are “very specific legal findings you have to meet.”

The DRC meets at City Hall at 7 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. The planning commission meets at the same location at 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month.