By David Armstrong

The Carmel-by-the-Sea Planning Commission met in a special public session Tuesday, April 24 to outline potential revisions to city residential and commercial building codes that could transform the face of Carmel for years to come. This writer left the sparsely attended city hall meeting with three takeaways:

  1. The commission wants to put this on fast-forward. Opined commission chair Michael LePage, “I think we have to start.” Community planning and building director Marc Wiener, citing city staff research, said code revisions are expected to take 9 to 12 months. Among the possible changes: loosening restrictions on contemporary architecture; considering the pluses of ‘basement bonuses’ (more room for home owners) and minuses (more excavation and expanding the scope of construction); allowing more detached home garages in front- and side-yard setbacks (“A large number of designers are proposing detached garages in the 15-foot front set-back area,” Wiener noted);  reviewing use permit voting requirements for art galleries, jewelry stores, health spa/massage shops and some other businesses; reconsidering the cap on hotel rooms; crafting a wine-tasting policy for downtown; and deciding on dwelling unit density. The commission set up a subcommittee for residential code review and a subcommittee for commercial codes that will deliberate simultaneously. That’s a big task.
  2. There’s public pushback against going too fast. Power broker and former Mayor Sue McCloud, recommended slowing down and thinking through the complex review process. She also advised the four commissioners present (Julie Wendt was absent) “to look at the whole picture. Don’t do residential and commercial simultaneously. Do them consecutively.” About 10 members of the public spoke of their concerns. Several speakers called for careful deliberation about the size, scale and impact of big new houses in residential neighborhoods and asked that designers and builders consult in advance with neighbors about design and the impact of construction. The commission heard a request for a cap on fast-proliferating wine-tasting rooms. Concern was also expressed about the challenges that downtown retail shops face from online rivals.
  3. Carmel’s signature small cottages are in big trouble. No speaker advocated obliterating them, but the commission evinced no interest in building more. Commissioner Gail Lehman (herself a designer and developer), observed, “We have a different economy than 50 or 75 years ago.” Nowadays, she declared, people want their homes to be “a document of their desires.” If that means bigger, flashier (and pricier, though she didn’t say so), so be it. There is no reason to build traditional, 900-square-foot houses, Lehman insisted. In an interesting if contradictory feat of logic, Lehman claimed that building small houses is tantamount to “telling families they are not welcome here.” Left unexamined was how few working class and even middle class families can afford expensive, look-at-me houses with the WOW factor that Lehman and most commissioners are eager to green-light. Seniors seeking to downsize to a snug, one-story house would be out of luck, too.

The meeting adjourned after 90 minutes. LePage said, “I want to stress that this is the beginning of the process.” Commissioners Lehman and Stephanie Locke joined the commercial subcommittee, with Wendt and newly appointed Christopher Bolton on the residential subcommittee. LePage will toggle between the two.

The planning commission’s next meeting is Wednesday, May 9. Code revisions are subject to approval by the city council, which is expected to address the matter at its June meeting.