Just reading the City’s zoning laws can either put you to sleep or drive you to the brink of pain with its technical jargon, confusing acronyms and symbols and legal double speak. What started in New York City in 1916 as a way to stop what was becoming a hodgepodge of uncontrolled growth mixing tenements, newly emerging skyscrapers, factories and other incompatible uses from encroaching on Fifth Avenue homeowners has transcended into a labyrinth of confusing rules and regulations.
Simply stated zoning involves the separation of land into districts and then specifies the uses, which are permitted, conditionally permitted and prohibited within each district. The General Plan sets out a vision for the city. Zoning is one of the primary tools to implementing that vision. California law requires zoning to be consistent with the general plan. In order for zoning to be consistent with the general plan, “the various land uses authorized by the ordinance must be compatible with the objectives, policies, general land uses, and programs specified in the general plan.” (Cal. Gov’t Code § 65860(b)).
Zoning determines specifically what type of development will be allowed and what it will look like. A zoning ordinance may regulate the height, bulk, required open space, number of dwellings per acre (density), distance between the building and lot line (setbacks), landscaping, parking required and other requirements applicable to a specific zone. Zoning performs another important function within the city, it is a tool used to protect property rights and enhance property values. Zoning accomplishes this, in part, by separating incompatible uses, like houses next to farms or factories.
Oakley’s zoning codes were adopted from the county in 1999 when we incorporated. These codes divided the city into three main categories: residential, commercial and industrial. The residential and industrial districts are broken down further, single-family, multi-family, light industrial and heavy industrial. Each zoning district is assigned a code R (R6, R7, etc.) for single family residential, M (M29, M14, etc.) for multi-family residential, LI – light industrial, HI – Heavy Industrial, C – General Commercial.
This is just a sampling of the many codes contained in the 451 pages of the zoning ordinance. R6 district refers to a single-family dwelling on a lot no smaller than six thousand square feet in area (60’ x 100’). The ordinance for R6 single-family residential includes a list of permitted uses, uses requiring a land use permit, setbacks for front, side and back, describes the lot in terms of area, width, depth and building height. These same regulations and others are applied to all other zoning districts but with variations designed to implement the characteristics of that district.
Remember though, nothing is chiseled in stone. There are a number of methods that provide a degree of flexibility in the zoning ordinance. Legal non-conforming uses are uses that existed prior to zoning or zoning changes. This status allows for the continuation of a specific use even though that use may no longer be permitted. A good example would be a single-family residence rezoned into a commercial area. The house would remain as legal non-conforming. The homeowner would be allowed to sell the property as a home or could sell it for commercial purposes.
A Variance is another method where a property owner can request that City’s Zoning Ordinance be changed for their property. A variance allows you, under special circumstances, to develop your property in a manner that varies from zoning regulation requirements. A variance may be appropriate if your property has some unique characteristic such as severe slope or a unique physical feature (heritage trees, an oversized utility easement, etc.) that prevents you from enjoying the same kind of property use that your neighbors have. You may request a variance for building height, required parking, building location and setbacks. You may not request a variance to develop your property for a use that is not allowed in your zoning district.
A conditional use permits a use of the property that the zoning of the property identified as a discretionary land use which may or may not be compatible with the location. It may be determined that a particular land use may be appropriate for a given area or neighborhood but is not specifically identified under the current zoning. An example may include a small grocery market in the middle of an otherwise single family neighborhood. Generally, conditional uses benefit the community by providing a service or resource not found already in the community or that otherwise contributes to the public good.
Zoning isn’t just for the public or your neighbors. Sometime in the near future it may be necessary for you to check into those very same ordinances for your own building needs. You may want to add a room to your house. Setbacks will be critical in determining how large the addition may be. You may live on a large lot and want to add an auxiliary building to store the boat or cars. How big can it be? How high up can I go? What about placement on the lot? Or your concerns might be for what’s happening in your community. What will they be building on the vacant lot down the street, the one around the corner or the property on the other side if you back fence? You have a right to know, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.