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'Dwelling Unit' Debate Gets Heated

With lively support from the public, the Planning Commission chose to uphold Sierra Madre's definition of the term "dwelling unit." The decision could impact Kensington Project developers, who have drawn plans for a 75-room assisted living facility.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday (7-0) to keep the current definition of “dwelling unit,” as described in Chapter 17.35 of the Voter’s Empowerment Ordinance (Measure V). 

The Commission was asked by the City Council to clarify the term, as it was deemed ambiguous by developers of a proposed assisted living facility dubbed the "Kensington Project" during a December City Council meeting.

The Commission met before a packed and lively crowd Thursday to discuss the definition of "dwelling unit" and another separate, yet connected issue: whether to grant a Conditional Use Permit to Kensington Developers to build a 58,000 square-foot assisted living building on the grounds of the former skilled nursing facility on W. Sierra Madre Blvd.

The Kensington project calls for the facility to have 75 rooms and up to 96 residents.

Measure V defines a dwelling unit as "one or more rooms in a building designed and intended to be used as living quarters by one person or a family." So, under Measure V, each room would be considered a dwelling unit, and a maximum of 23 units would be allowed.

But, by adding a that a dwelling unit must contain a kitchen, as is the case in other cities such as Pasadena, then all 75 rooms would be considered one unit, as the residents in the assisted living facility would all share one kitchen. If this were true, then the Kensington developers might have an easier time building their proposed facility.

Planning Commission Chair Kevin Paschall voiced his opposition to making any changes to the definition on a few occasions during the meeting and was met with cheers from the many residents who came out in defense of keeping Measure V unchanged.

“I really think there was a clear opinion from the public when they voted on Measure V.  I think moving on a clarification of this is a slap in the face of the public,” Paschall said. 

In short, Measure V’s main goal main goal was to preserve the “small town” feel of Sierra Madre. The measure, adopted in 2007, set height limitations for buildings within the central core of the city not to exceed 30 feet and 2 stories, and density limitations to 13 dwelling units per acre. It also states that building decisions that deviate from the long-standing goals should be made by the entire city after public debate and election; not by a few City Hall insiders.

What the Public Had to Say

Many residents spoke on the importance of keeping Measure V as is.

“The purpose of Measure V was to lower the density of development in the court area,” said attorney Christopher Sutton, co-author of Measure V. “The purpose of this clarification is to increase the density in the court area and to change what would be 96 units into one unit. This so-called ambiguity was brought up by this one developer… to somehow push through one project without evaluating the long term citywide impacts,” Sutton said.

Steering Committee member Debbie Sheridan also chimed in on this issue. “A project such as this one has been long awaited by Sierra Madre’s residents to get rid of that eye sore,” Sheridan said in describing the current vacant building that has sat on that site for over 5 years now. “However, violating the letter and the spirit of the law is not the way to do so,” she said.

“I am deeply saddened that the city is seeking this proposed clarification from the Planning Commission,” said former Sierra Madre Mayor Kurt Zimmerman. “It’s not really a proposed clarification, but a rubber stamp for a novel misinterpretation of Measure V.”

Approximately 20 persons spoke during the public comment section; all were in favor of keeping Measure V as is.    

The unanimous vote seemed to come with some reservations as some Planning Commission members noted the need for better clarification of the term “dwelling unit.” But, after hours of debate, everyone agreed that no change to language would be made. In addition, on advice of member John Vandevelde, the Commission passed an ordinance to further discuss how assisted living-type facilities will be handled in the future as they are different from other living units.

Kensington Developers had a chance to give a presentation of their project proposal and the impacts it would have on the community, but due to time restraints, the public had no time to comment on the project and will have to wait to be heard until February 16, when the meeting will be continued. 

Stick with Patch for more updates about this story.

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