Board of Supervisors OKs new planning rules: Revised law affect changes to nonconforming structures

By JASON HOPPIN – Santa Cruz
Posted: 03/20/2012 06:51:17 PM PDT

SANTA CRUZ – The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules intended to simplify the process of getting many home renovations through the notoriously hard-to-navigate county Planning Department.

But the changes themselves did not come without questions about whether they were too complicated, with at-times skeptical board members quizzing county staff on why they didn’t take a different path to making it easier for homeowners to make upgrades and repairs to the thousands of county homes.

County Board Chairman John Leopold said the new rules aren’t perfect, but said the old version prevented owners from remodeling and extending the life of local buildings, many of which were built prior to modern building codes.

“To the extent that the changes make that happen, that’s a win for the community,” Leopold said.

The changes are a significant piece of ongoing planning reforms intended to make the county Planning Department more user-friendly. Other changes make it easier for certain businesses to move into vacant storefronts and relax parking requirements for new businesses.

But for so-called nonconforming homes, figuring out the new rules requires understanding a sophisticated new formula.

What the board adopted seems simple enough – homes with changes to less than 65 percent of its major structural components could be approved at the staff level, without a costly and time-consuming public hearing.

But figuring out how much of a residence is changing is not going to be simple. The county adopted a weighted formula where a roof counts for 15 percent of a project, walls count for 65 percent, floors count for 10 percent and the foundation counts for 10 percent.

Planners now will calculate the percent of changes within each of those categories, combine them according to the weight given each category in the formula, and determine whether an over-the-counter approval is warranted.

Several supervisors asked why the county didn’t opt for using the estimated value of a remodel in determining how much scrutiny a job gets, a method used by many other communities.

“The idea that we’re not choosing to use the method that is done by so many others around us, I don’t know if that is a good change or not,” Leopold said.

County staff said the formula approach was favored during several outreach sessions, and local land-use experts spoke in favor of the approach during Tuesday’s board meeting. They said using valuations can be tricky, getting into the types of flooring chosen, or the fixtures to be selected. They also said the process can be manipulated through estimates and appraisals.

“It’s very difficult to try to value ahead of the project and have confidence that it’s accurate,” county Planning Director Kathy Previsich said.

Staff originally proposed over-the-counter review for any project involving up to 75 percent of a home, but the board lowered that threshold with a 3-2 vote. Supervisors Neal Coonerty and Ellen Pirie voted to keep the more relaxed standard.

Projects in county riparian zones would face tougher requirements.

In other business, the county adopted an electronic waste ordinance aimed at making sure collectors of electronic goods such as computers, cellphones and televisions use only certified recyclers to process the material.

The law is aimed at keeping electronic waste, which often contains materials dangerous to humans and the environment, from being shipped overseas and burned or otherwise improperly disposed.

Members of the California Grey Bears said they were concerned the new law would lead to an abundance of new paperwork, and that most of their electronic collections already are properly disposed.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter @scnewsdude