The hills are alive with the sound of bulldozers…
When my family decided to move to Pacifica back in 2008 one of the big draws for us was the amount of open space. I thought to myself, what a forward-thinking planning department and city council we have that has protected our beautiful green hills since the 50’s. It looks like a picture postcard for what cities should do to protect the environment and fight climate change.
Last summer, with an ill-conceived condominium project planned just up the hill from my home, I started paying attention to projects that were coming before the planning commission. As a professional architect the drawing review is easy for me, but I had to quickly familiarize myself with the city’s General Plan and Zoning Ordinances to understand the particular laws of Pacifica that projects must follow.
I was pleased to find that thanks to former city leaders back in the 70’s we actually have pretty good laws that protect our hillsides and limit the amount of development based on the slope of the land and the size of the parcel. Article 22.5 of the Municipal Code defines Hillside Preservation Districts, known colloquially as HPD. The intent of the ordinance is spelled out below:
(a) Preserve and enhance their use as a prime resource;
(b) Help protect people and property from all potentially hazardous conditions particular to hillsides;
(c) Assure that any development be economically sound; and
(d) Encourage innovative design solutions.
I encourage you to read it yourself, but the HPD ordinance includes an objective formula that defines what percent of a parcel can be developed based on the average slope of the total parcel. The less steep and the larger the site, the more you can build. Once you get to a slope of 40%, you can’t build anything.
Furthermore, HPD specifies that ANY disturbance of the land be counted. If you’re putting a building on the land, that area counts, if you’re building a driveway, patios, retaining walls, those areas count. If you’re digging or moving soil for any reason those areas need to be counted too.
“All areas not considered coverage shall remain undisturbed in their native or natural state”.
Note that it doesn’t say you can dig it up and then put it back; no, it cannot be disturbed at all. There is a minor exception for larger projects with community recreation areas or trails, that allows those to not be counted, but that is the only exception. It is the intent of this code section to allow the reasonable use of hillside lands consistent with the objectives of the General Plan in such a manner so as not to be confiscatory, or in legal land use language, to constitute a “taking”. My understanding, which I am hoping to confirm with the planning department, is that that means you can always build one house on a property no matter the slope.
So what about this large project currently under construction at 801 Fassler? Is it HPD? Yes. Does it comply? No…
The HPD calculation shows that only 11% of this site could be disturbed. I color coded the plan below – the buildings and paving are shown in yellow, and the additional area disturbed by grading is shown in green. It looked like a lot more than 11% to my naked eye, so we measured the area on the drawings. Lo and behold, only the yellow areas were counted, none of the green. The developer’s drawings and the planning department staff report said outright that the project complied with HPD, but it does not.
The planning commissioners and city council members that reviewed the application were apparently misled, and never even thought to ask the question…The ones I have spoken to are quite upset as it would have changed their votes.
I consulted with a land use attorney, but it is unfortunately too late to do anything about this project. There are several others in the project pipeline with similar issues though, and it is apparently up to us citizens to hold the city accountable to meet their own regulations.
PTwo appeals have been filed by Pacifica residents for the recent approval of a home at Harmony @ One whose plans did not comply with HPD disturbed area. Again, the plans and planning staff report were in error. Several other large projects in the works on steep forested sites in Vallemar and Linda Mar are also problematic; one on San Pedro Mountain actually shows the HPD zoning somehow being removed! The planning department has not answered my questions posed months ago of how that is even possible…
What I have learned in the past months is that often it is not the city government or staff that has preserved our beautiful hillsides, but our residents, who time after time, year after year questioned and fought projects that did not comply with our laws. While we thank these older citizens we must realize that the baton has now been passed and it is up to us living here now to step up and do the work. Our hillsides, trails and beaches are our greatest resources, for quality of life for residents and wildlife that share these spaces, but also for tourists and the money they bring to the city’s coffers. I encourage you to pay attention, attend public city council and planning commission meetings, and get involved with some of the non-profits in town fighting to protect our beautiful gem of Pacifica for the next generations.
Christine Boles is a licensed architect living in Pacifica who works with property owners and developers to build responsibly and sustainably. She is a member of the non-profit, CPUP, the Coalition of Pacificans for an Updated Plan and Responsible Planning and is committed to working with Pacifica to update the 40 year old General Plan (the “constitution of the city”) including the Housing Element to identify appropriate sites for building much needed housing at all income levels.