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Clarity = Quality
Beth Levine | Design Review Board

New design review standards are illustrated making review process less subjective and more predictable for applicants.
Illustration from Del Mar Design Guidelines.
Click to enlarge.

In November 2017,
the Del Mar City Council approved Design Review Guidelines as a companion to the City’s Design Review Ordinance (DRO) (DMMC Chapter 23.08 Design Review). “The Design Guidelines provide quantifiable standards and criteria to add clarity, definition, and detail to the DRO standards of review that are used by the Design Review Board (DRB) in its deliberations.” In addition, they assist City staff, design professionals, property owners, residents, and businesses in the design review process. Staff can provide more precise guidance to applicants and their agents throughout the process, hopefully resulting in an approvable project before the Board.

The DRO directs that “[a]n application shall be approved unless the Design Review Board makes findings of fact . . . that support one or more of the regulatory conclusions contained in . . . [the Design Review Ordinance].” Although the Guidelines do not hold the same weight as the standards in the Municipal Code, they provide objective support for what should and should not be acceptable under those DRO requirements.

Examples abound as to how the Guidelines can be useful tools. Potential view blockage and invasion of privacy often arise in cases of new construction, and on February 27, 2019, the DRB received training on application of the Guidelines in these areas.

When finding an inappropriate view blockage, the Board must conclude that the “proposed development unreasonably encroaches upon primary scenic views of neighboring property.” Although “unreasonable” and “primary scenic views” are defined in the Municipal Code, the Guidelines provide explicit ranges of allowable percentages of view obstruction. They further emphasize that [t]he full extent of the view (100%) should be a culmination of all views observed from the . . . [neighbor’s primary living area], both sitting and standing,” and that “cumulative loss of . . . views should be avoided when such loss can be substantiated through the public record.”In order to avoid a DRB conclusion that the proposed design “will create an unreasonable invasion of privacy of neighboring properties,” the Guidelines make several suggestions, including windows with higher sills, use of translucent or obscured window glass, and limits on the size and location of decks and balconies.

When land conservation is an issue, the DRB may find that “[t]he proposed development unreasonably disrupts the existing natural topography . . . .” The Guidelines specify how much grading is appropriate depending upon the percent of the property’s natural slope, emphasizing that the development should “[a]void excavation or grading that may force the topography to be subservient to the development of the site.” Similarly, the Guidelines urge the avoidance of retaining walls over a certain height.

Another DRO regulatory conclusion addresses hardscape (“proposed development fails to minimize hardscape surfaces and limit excessive paving”). The Guidelines, in turn, recommend percentages of minimum landscape area depending upon lot size, and suggest “maximiz[ing] the use of pervious materials for driveways, walkways, and/or patios.”

Excessive bulk and mass resulting from design components that are not calculated as part of the maximum allowed floor area (e.g., patios, high ceilings) is an additional element appearing in some projects. The Guidelines address this issue, suggesting limits on the percentage of a lot’s maximum allowed bulk floor area for covered porches, loggias, decks, and balconies, recommending plate heights to avoid excessive volume, proposing various roof forms to reduce extra bulk, and enumerating ways to avoid extra apparent height in hillside homes.

We are still getting accustomed to the Guidelines, but the consensus is they provide more definitive standards to improve the design review process. Although the Guidelines are not prescriptive and individual situations exist where the Guidelines should not apply, it is up to the project design team to demonstrate why that is the case. However, with City staff working together with all interested individuals, the Guidelines will help applicants produce a project application that can be approved by the DRB.



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