Public Comment

OAKLANDERS BEWARE: Mini-lot Development Coming to Neighbor's Yard or Vacant Lot Next to You

By Bob Brokl
Friday January 20, 2012 - 01:30:00 PM

Our MacCall St. neighbors group lost the $1400 appeal over a mini-lot subdivision, a vacant lot at 5919 MacCall where formerly there was a single family home. Two 1,452 sq. ft., two story buildings on the substandard 4,140 sq. ft. lot where 5,000 sq. ft. would be required were approved at the Residential Appeal Committee Jan. 11. Two of the 3 commissions, Jonelyn Whales, a City of Richmond planner recently appointed by Quan, and Blake Huntsman, a SEIU rep and Dellums appointee, heard the appeal. Both followed the staff recommendation, made no modifications, and peremptorily voted us down. (We're assuming the proposed project at 4812 Lawton in Temescal—check out is also a mini-lot development.) 

In a nutshell, the zoning we thought we had achieved during the recent rezoning is simply non-existent if a developer wants to build the maximum number of structures on a vacant lot, back, front or side yard. Conditional use permits (c.u.p.s) and variances are being routinely granted for these mini-lot projects. In our case, variances were awarded the developer, the Market Hall Wilson clan, for the violation of setback requirements. Testimony by the Wilsons, the Dogtown developer completing another mini-lot subdivision project at 721-723 60th St., the commissioners, and Zoning Manager Scott Miller himself all indicated condo financing is hard to come by for developers, and mini-lot, multi-unit structures on substandard parcels, packaged as "in-fill," is the way to go in a difficult development climate. Miller repeatedly cited the "flexibility" these mini-lot developments afford developers. He also mentioned "marketability" as a factor for approving such projects. It should be noted here that planning staff are paid primarily through developer fees and permits. 

We actively participated in the multi-million dollar, years in the making citywide rezoning process, attending most of the meetings. "Mini-lot developments," which pre-empt zoning, was never even put on the table. The old bait-and-switch game—a "loophole" big enough to drive a truck through. 

Nine different households contributed toward the astronomical appeal fee, and we had support from more, including elderly and ill neighbors who will be most impacted and who didn't attend the hearing. But Huntsman went so far as to use the dismissive and condescending term "nimby" to describe us. Huntsman is perhaps best known for his sincere observation during the condomania speculative bubble (most of the projects he voted for were never built) that the large number of condos coming on the market would drive down prices. That's what happened, of course, just not in the way he expected...And speaking of condomania, the strategy of resorting to a mini-lot development exemption is eerily similar to the "CEQA in-fill exemption" which was used to justify the high-rise condominium behemoths, where variances were used as necessary, usually plentifully. 

As evidence the House always wins and the cards are stacked against you: the project was basically pre-approved before the neighbors even found out about it. According to the staff report, the developers were meeting with city staff to present and revise their plans beginning on Feb. 28, 2011; the neighbors were given notice on June 10, 2011 for the project the city had already signed off on. No wonder the planner assigned to the project never returned phone calls—he was just being honest. 

The City of Oakland's "Guide to Mini-Lot Developments" (Chapter 17.102.320) states: "Mini-lot Development is defined by Section 17.09 of the Oakland Planning Code as 'a comprehensively designed development containing lots which do not meet the minimum size of other requirements applying to individual lots in the zone where it is located'." According to the staff report, the MacCall St. project neatly avoided all the normal requirements for setbacks and minimum square footage provided for under the zoning. Miller said that the state allowances for in-law and secondary units were specifically excluded on this project, but could we take that to the bank, since state law trumps local rules? Two units become four! 

Mini-lot developments are allowed in all but a few areas of the hills—ranchettes along Skyline Blvd., where the minimum lot size is 4 acres. Rockridge, Temescal, and North Oakland are especially rich targets for such shoehorned projects, because of keen developer interest in areas that are weathering the Great Recession better, and because the relatively restrictive RM-1 and RM-2 zoning we thought protected us is about as safe as 50 year old condoms. 

Get used to the newest neighbors in your neighbors' back, side, or front yard. Or—Is there a lawyer in the house?