In our previous post, we looked at the basic zoning rules that govern development in Los Angeles. In this post, we’ll look at what has to happen to get permission to do something different than what the zoning allows.
Depending on how much the proposed development deviates from what is allowed by the zoning rules, there are different levels of permission needed from the city. For example, a small change, such as a little extra height, requires a relatively small action from the city, while larger changes require larger actions from the city.
If a project complies with all the zoning requirements and doesn’t require approval by city planning, the project can simply be approved by the city as long as it complies with the building code and other regulations. These projects are called “by right” projects – the owner of the land has the right to do the project without any special permission from the city.
In practice, very few projects are totally by right. Even relatively simple projects like small lot subdivisions, which are small developments of single-family houses, require city approval to subdivide the land (a “parcel map” for 4 or fewer houses, a “tract map” for more). Public hearings must be held for such actions. In addition, most of Los Angeles was zoned decades ago, and the zoning doesn’t reflect the current needs of the city.
Zoning Administrator’s Adjustments
If a project requires only small deviations from the zoning regulations, they can be handled through Zoning Administrator’s Adjustments. The Municipal Code allows this action for deviations of up to 20% from required yards and height, and up to 10% of required lot area. For example, if the zoning requires a 15’ front yard (the lawn between the property line on the street and the front of the building), an adjustment can be granted for front yard of as little as 12’. If a project is in the R3 zone, which requires 800 square feet (SF) of lot area per apartment, and adjustment could be granted to allow a reduction to 720 SF.
The planning department can’t just grant these changes at will. The code requires the city to determine that strictly following the zoning rules would be impractical or impossible, and that the project still conforms to the intent of the zoning rules. In addition, the planner can impose additional conditions on the project as part of granting the adjustment.
Zoning adjustments can be required for minor things most people don’t even notice. For example, if you want to put up a fence higher than 3.5’ (but less than 8’) in the front yard or 8’ in the side yard of a residential zone, you’ll need an adjustment. This observer once attended an appeal hearing where both parties had professional legal representation and hours of city staff time were spent discussing fences and “hedge effects” between two properties.
Zone Variances are required where the property owner is requesting larger changes from the zoning regulations than permitted by an adjustment. Variances can be given to allow for more height, smaller yards, or more density than can be allowed by and adjustment.
Again, the city cannot grant variances for anything and everything. The planner must find that strict application of the zoning rules is impractical or impossible, and that special circumstances such as lot size, shape, or topography exist. Variances are not intended to grant special privilege or permit uses that are not consistent with other properties in the same zone. In other words, you’re not going to walk into city planning and get a variance to build a 20 story building in a single-family zone.
Zone Changes and General Plan Amendments
If a developer would like to get major changes for a project, they need to ask for a Zone Change or Height District Change, and most likely a General Plan Amendment as well.
A zone change is a request for the city to change the zoning of a property to allow more density or different uses. For example, a developer might ask for a change from RD2 to RD1.5 for a small lot subdivision to be able to build more units, or from R4 to RAS4 to allow a mixed-use project. Likewise, a height district change would be needed to request a significant increase in project height.
The General Plan is a document required by state law, intended to guide city long-term city development. The city of LA is required to have its zoning in conformance with the general plan. Therefore, in many cases, a zone change must be accompanied by a general plan amendment, so that the plan and zoning code match each other.
If the city finds a project to be beneficial, there’s nothing wrong with granting Zone Changes and General Plan Amendments. The city council creates the zoning and the General Plan, and the city council has the authority to change them.
In addition to the general requirements of the zoning code, a particular piece of property may be subjected to additional regulations. For example, there may be a Specific Plan that applies to the area, which may further restrict development height and FAR. There may be ordinances such as Building Lines, which require larger front yards than the zoning. If a project cannot meet these requirements, relief from them will need to be requested from the city as well.
Zoning Changes and Housing in LA
Opponents of development, such as the NIMBYs behind the so-called “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative”, claim that the city granting adjustments, variances, and zone changes is evidence of the city and developers conspiring against residents.
The truth is that it shows that the current zoning and permitting process is not meeting the needs of the modern city. LA is a region in desperate need of more housing, and the current zoning is designed to prevent housing from being constructed in most places. This is not a negative comment on the hard work being done by city planners trying to follow the zoning code, it’s just the political reality of land use and development in LA and much of California over the last several decades.
If zoning in the region allowed for the construction of the housing we need, developers wouldn’t have to ask for changes nearly as often. LA’s community plans and zoning are badly out of date, and need to be updated. But even so, there’s no reason to not entertain proposals for projects that require zone changes. A developer might come up with an idea for a project that wasn’t considered before, and there’s no reason to not hear them out at a public hearing, which all zone changes get. Cities are constantly evolving and changing, and there’s nothing wrong with changing zoning to reflect that.