Encinitas to explore ‘McMansion’ restrictions

Encinitas could follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles and pass tighter restrictions on “McMansions,” new homes that dwarf surrounding houses and don’t fit neighborhood character.

The Encinitas City Council recently directed the Planning Commission to explore ways to limit the large, boxy homes and then return with recommendations.

Councilman Tony Kranz, who initiated the council agenda item, said in an interview this week that McMansions have popped up throughout the city in the last few years. He added given the number of concerned emails he’s received on the subject, residents have noticed.

“People who have been here a really long time object to having fairly small homes replaced with really big ones,” Kranz said. “And they may not exactly be next-door neighbors to these places, but they feel it’s one more blow to the old Encinitas they know.”

Kranz said McMansions are a matter of real estate economics: the more square footage, the greater return on investment. And he stated California’s “density bonus” law is another contributing factor.

Density bonus lets developers construct more housing on a parcel than city zoning allows as long as one affordable unit is built. The law also permits waivers and incentives that relax building standards, such as reduced lot setbacks.

Kranz said density bonus law typically results in wall-to-wall homes that are out of-scale with the rest of the neighborhood.

Resident Susan Yamagata has vocally opposed a proposed nine-home density bonus project that would be built on a former greenhouse nursery near her home. She’s hoping the council will pass McMansion regulations that reduce the footprint of such developments.

Standing in front of her house, Yamagata pointed out that her neighborhood is made up of single-story bungalows, while eight of the nine homes in the project would be two stories tall.

“The homes would loom over our neighborhood,” she said, adding the houses would mean a loss of privacy, jeopardize community character and hurt property values among the existing homes.

Michael Vairin is the executive vice president of Melia Homes, the developer of the nine-home project. The average home in the proposed development is 3,185 square feet, and Vairin said this is much smaller than what most consider McMansions.

Vairin added Melia Homes has revised the project over time to decrease the size of the homes and increase setbacks in response to neighbors’ concerns.

While the council recently took up McMansions, density bonus has been a hot topic for two years. The council last summer passed regulations meant to shrink the footprint of density bonus developments. However, the council later rescinded those rules to settle a Building Industry Association lawsuit.

Next week, the council will consider a density bonus ordinance with less-stringent restrictions.

Yamagata said Encinitas should tackle both density bonus and McMansions. For the latter, she believes the city should take a close look at ordinances like the one Los Angeles passed seven years ago.

In Los Angeles, the maximum home square footage is based on both lot size and the area’s zoning. Encinitas only restricts house size based on the area’s zoning. So, zoning permitting, bigger homes can go on smaller parcels locally.

The Planning Commission will explore the Los Angeles ordinance, design guidelines and other options, according to a motion approved last week by a council majority of Kranz, Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer and Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear.

Councilman Mark Muir and Mayor Kristin Gaspar voted against the motion, instead advocating for focusing on updating city design guidelines so that new homes would have a similar look and feel as surrounding houses.

They also voiced concern that the possible restrictions could cap current house sizes and thus impact home additions.

“The moment you talk about suddenly decreasing a homeowner’s property value, we’re going to have some problems,” Gaspar said, adding the city should “tread lightly” on any potential ordinance.

In turn, the council majority said any regulations should be balanced with private property rights.

Michael McSweeney, senior public policy adviser with the San Diego Building Industry Association, did not respond to a request for a phone interview. In an email statement, McSweeney said that homes and land are valued based on location and square footage.

“If the City artificially lowers the size of new homes, it will reduce the potential resale value of all homes in the area,” McSweeney said. “There is no evidence that this policy has achieved its stated goal in other cities which chose this route.”