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Solana Beach Still Debating Restrictions on Home Sizes

While just a small majority of voters in the March 6 special election OK’d an ordinance to restrict the size of homes in several neighborhoods of Solana Beach west of Interstate 5, the fight to amend or even kill the law may continue.

A homeowner recently filed a complaint and talk of litigation is sweeping the city.

Louise Abbott, a Realtor and homeowner who opposed the ordinance, filed a complaint with the Enforcement Division of the California Fair Political Practices Commission this month claiming one activist group did not report all of its expenditures.

“I am not sure this is all over,” said Abbott, a member of Real Property Rights, a community activist group. “There are some very questionable constitutional issues with this election.”

But what is more troubling, said Abbott, is the loss in real estate values impacting residents who live in neighborhoods where restrictions have been imposed.

The ordinance applies to both new home construction, as well as expansion of existing homes.

Previously, owners of a 4,000-square-foot lot were allowed 2,400 square feet of livable space, now they are allowed 2,000 square feet. Real estate experts say this reduction represents a 17 percent loss or a loss of $264,000 in value based on the average price per square foot for homes west of I-5.

The owners of a 10,000-square-foot lot were allowed 4,500 square feet of livable space, but now they are allowed 3,700. This presents an 18 percent loss or monetary loss of $528,000.

And owners of a 40,000-square-foot lot were allowed 10,500 square feet of livable space, but now they are allowed just 6,075 square feet. This represents a $2.9 million loss in property value potential, say experts.

The fear of oversized houses overshadowing smaller ones in existing neighborhoods is changing the beach communities in Southern California. In addition to Solana Beach, coastal cities, including Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica, have wrestled with owners tearing down bungalows and cottages in favor of building significantly larger homes.

Dave Zito, a leader of Save Old Solana, which favored restrictions, said he wouldn’t expect litigation to succeed, if opponents filed a lawsuit.

“The initiative was written by the city with lots of city staff time and lots of city attorney time,” he said. “It should be pretty rock solid and in particular because it was approved by the vote of the people.”

However, he said he would not be surprised if voters again faced the issue because of the close outcome.

The ordinance was approved by just 67 votes, with 1,978 in favor to 1,911 opposed.

Preserving Character

The goal of the ordinance is to preserve the existing character of a coastal cottage community through strict regulations.

Supporters say the law protects the character of established neighborhoods by preserving their traditional size and scale.

Opponents say the ordinance decreases the value of homes and infringes on property rights.

The North San Diego County Association of Realtors opposed this law, and joined the campaign to protect property rights and educate homeowners.

Ernie Cowan, government affairs director for the association, said he understood the goal of the city was to control the character of neighborhoods. But he said to simply control character by controlling the size of houses is not the answer.

“Anytime these kinds of restrictions are placed on a property there is a potential loss of value for that property,” Cowan said. “It is a simple equation, property is worth the highest and best use that can essentially be done with it.”

While the association does not anticipate legal action, Cowan said many homeowners, who did not think this law through, may turn to the courts for answers.

“When they realize the economic impact someone is going to be angry and many lawsuits can come about this,” he said.

Home buyers often purchase because of the location.

The lot is the single biggest component of the financial transaction in home sales. Cowan said home buyers buy property because of location, and then try to maximize value by building a larger home that fits their lifestyle.

“If they suddenly discover they cannot build the house they want, the property value diminishes,” he said.

Some residents, including Abbott, say the ordinance creates inequities because the law only affects residents in some sections of the city, which has a population of 13,000 and features 2 miles of coastline.

“What better way to do this than to chip off a piece of the city at (a) time and now that it (has) started, who knows what they will do,” said Cowan.

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