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Revamped Zoning Ordinance Headed to Santa Barbara City Council for July Approval

Most changes clarify hodge-podge or old language, though food business parking rules may be simplified

Posters explaining the city of Santa Barbara’s draft of its new zoning ordinance were displayed at a meeting earlier this year. The City Council is expected to consider the update plan in July. Click to view larger
Posters explaining the city of Santa Barbara’s draft of its new zoning ordinance were displayed at a meeting earlier this year. The City Council is expected to consider the update plan in July. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

After years of adding hodge-podge amendments to decades-old language, Santa Barbara is preparing to adopt a revamped zoning ordinance this summer, with the aim of modernizing and clarifying what is currently Title 28 of 29 in the 1,200-page Municipal Code.

The zoning ordinance delineates the city’s many land-use zones, and lays out what uses — residential, commercial, industrial, parks, etc. — are allowed in each one. It includes development standards and regulations, and establishes the city’s development review process.

Much of the ordinance’s language dates back to at least its last major overhaul in 1957, and the city is approaching the end of a three-year effort to totally revamp the document. Only small changes and updates have been made over the last 60 years.

The vast majority of the changes relate to modernizing language, clarifying existing regulations and making the ordinance more reader-friendly.

City planning staff hope clearly defining the rules will eliminate instances where they have to interpret the ordinance’s outdated language when evaluating land-use-related projects.

The new zoning ordinance, or NZO, does not change any development standards related to contentious issues such as vacation rentals, the Average Unit Density Program or medical marijuana dispensaries.

Major cornerstones of development regulation like building heights, nonresidential growth limits and residential density limits — established in the city’s General Plan — also have been left untouched.

The greatest issue the NZO does tackle is parking for food-related businesses. The document proposes a single standard for all such commercial uses.

Currently, fast food places are required to have one parking spot per 100 square feet of space, retail outlets such as grocery stores need one for every 250 square feet, and restaurants require  either one for every 250 square feet or one for every three seats — whichever is greater.

The change wouldn’t affect downtown’s Central Business District, which already has a single one-per-500-square-feet standard.

“Parking for food-services uses was the single most controversial topic in the whole shebang,” said city senior planner Danny Kato, who’s led the overhaul efforts.

Kato said the change eliminates another form of time-consuming interpretation.

“If you have a bakery and you just sell bread to-go, you’re a retail food service,” he said. “But if you put in an espresso machine, then suddenly you’re something else. You could be fast food or a sit-down restaurant depending on how you serve your food.”

City planning staff, the Planning Commission and the City Council’s Ordinance Committee have backed one space for every 250 square feet.

The question of where the line gets drawn arises when a food business enters into a vacant space that had a different use — say, as a bookstore.

Providing restaurant and food-service businesses the most parking flexibility when entering a new location tends to mean more competition for fewer parking spots, which generates a greater impact on the supply of street parking.

But regulations aimed at limiting impacts to street parking — like requiring more on-site parking — tend to constrain those types of businesses’ parking flexibility, and thus the ease of opening in a given location.

Planning Commissioner Jay Higgins said these types of businesses sometimes play with their set up and operations to make their parking requirements most favorable to them.

“A lot of public speakers who came (to commission meetings) reinforced what we already anecdotally know: that a lot of people who go to restaurants are not driving their cars anymore — they’re using ride-sharing services,” he told the Ordinance Committee on Wednesday.

The NZO would also restrict the allowed uses in the manufacturing zone on the lower Eastside.

Virtually all uses except residential are allowed there. The city wants to start excluding non-industrial uses, including eating and drinking establishments, schools, medical offices and hotels.

The goal is to preserve light manufacturing in what’s known as the M-1 zone, whose businesses tend to have lower profit margins and would be driven out by more-profitable uses that could induce higher rents.

Businesses there that don’t conform to the new standards aren’t kicked out, however: They become what’s known as legal non-conforming uses that can continue, though they cannot expand.

In general, a legal non-conforming business that shuts down can be replaced by another non-conforming business if the change occurs within a year, according to planning staff.

The NZO also outlines greater freedoms for food truck operation, governs neighborhood markets in residential zones, loosens rules on alterations to non-conforming uses and would slightly expand the Central Business District.

It officially designates as open-space parkland the 15-acre Veronica Meadows area off Las Positas Road across from Elings Park, which the city purchased in 2016 and is currently zoned for residential use.

One significant consideration for the City Council is how and whether the changes will affect land-use projects undergoing city review and approval when the NZO becomes effective.

The Ordinance Committee has asked that a project be allowed to follow the old zoning rules if its application is deemed complete at that time.

A divided Planning Commission recommended in April that the cut-off be receiving a building permit or receiving discretionary approval, the latter of which could be something like approval for a building design from the Architectural Board of Review.

The full council is expected to take up the NZO in July, with the document taking effect 60 to 90 days after approval.

From there, the city will have to submit it to the California Coastal Commission, whose approval is needed to make it effective in the coastal zone.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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