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City of Mill Valley

CVP comments on proposed changes to Zoning and Multifamily Ordinances in Mill Valley

The following letter was sent to the Mill Valley Planning Commission for their consideration at the hearing on proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinances and Zoning Maps, impacting most commercial and mixed use housing areas in the City, and particularly the downtown area.

January 11, 2016

Mill Valley Planning Commission, City of Mill Valley

26 Corte Madera Avenue

Mill Valley, CA 94941

Re: Comments on the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Maps, Multi-Family Residential and Mixed Use Development Standards and Design Guidelines

Dear Planning Commissioners:

In your review of the newly proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Maps, and the Multi-Family Residential and Mixed Use Development Standards and Design Guidelines, I ask that you please consider the following comments at your public hearing on Tuesday, January 12, 2016.

CEQA Exemption

On the first page of the Staff Report, dated January 12, 2016, starting on Line 19, under the section titled, ACTIONS REQUESTED, the report recommends that the Planning Commissioners approval of the proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinances and Zoning Maps is categorically exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) under Sections 15305 and 15061(b)(3) of the CEQA Guidelines.

We respectfully disagree. It is not exempt.

Section 15305 of the referenced statute states:

Class 5 consists of minor alterations in land use limitations in areas with an average slope of less than 20%, which do not result in any changes in land use or density, [Emphasis added] including but not limited to:

Therefore, use of this exemption for the extensive city-wide zoning amendment is inapplicable on its face. Section 15305 is only permitted for "minor" alterations; extensive city-wide zoning amendments are clearly not minor. Even more clearly, the zoning amendments result in changes in both land use and density and therefore don't come under Section 15305. For instance, rezoning commercial zones to or to include mixed-use residential is a land use change and adjusting FARs and decreasing setbacks can clearly change density, and / or promote increases in density.

Finally, the examples of exemptions provided in Section 15305 not only confirm the limited use of this exemption category but also strongly indicate that use of this category is for minor permit applications, not changes to the zoning ordinances themselves [Emphasis added].

Section 15061 of the referenced statute states:

The activity is covered by the general rule that CEQA applies only to projects which have the potential for causing a significant effect on the environment. Where it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment, the activity is not subject to CEQA.

Use of this exemption demonstrates a lack of actual scrutiny or concern by the City because this exemption may only be used where "there is no possibility" that the activity may have a significant impact. Yet, the proposed zoning ordinance amendments include changes in land use, parking, FAR and setbacks, all of which, individually and cumulatively, have the potential to increase building footprints and lot coverages, thereby clearly leading to an increase in impermeable surfaces.

Such increases on a city-wide scale will logically lead to increased runoff, thereby potentially causing increases in flooding and discharges of polluted runoff into local streams and the San Francisco Bay. Thus, the City’s use of Section 15061 - often termed the "common sense" exemption - makes no sense at all. Be advised that the history of Section 15061 in courts is of high scrutiny. Courts have chastised cities repeatedly for self-serving use and abuse of this particular exemption.

The extent and impacts of the proposed changes have not been properly analyzed, even though they clearly have the potential and the intention to increase, and in some instances dramatically increase, density and its impacts. This is particularly true in the newly designated, downtown, mixed-use zones that provide for “by right” zoning for adding residential above existing commercial uses.

Ironically, in direct contradiction to the Staff Report’s recommendation, Sections of the Multi-Family Residential Attachments state, repeatedly, that the specific purpose of the proposals is to “create… higher density residential neighborhoods.”

Examples include [Emphasis added]:


20.24.005 Purpose and Intent

The multi-family residential zones are intended to create and maintain medium and higher density residential neighborhoods that blend a range of housing types with a mix of unit sizes with a limited mix of neighborhood-scale commercial, office, and institutional uses. The City's goals include preservation of the existing stock of rental housing in these areas and provision of opportunities for development of new multi-family housing that increase the diversity of housing options within the City.

20.26.005 Purpose and Intent

The downtown residential zone is intended to create and maintain medium and higher density residential neighborhood that blend a range of housing types and uses, including single family and multi-family residential, with a mix of unit sizes with a limited mix of neighborhood-scale office and institutional uses. The City's goals include preservation of the existing stock of rental housing in these areas and provision of opportunities for development of new housing that increases the diversity of housing options within the City.

The proposals before you, therefore, are not categorically exempt from CEQA, and the Planning Commission cannot at this time, recommend the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Maps, Multi-Family Residential and Mixed Use Development Standards and Design Guidelines, as suggested by the Staff Report, until they are subjected to a proper CEQA process.

Since the proposal requires a CEQA process, at a minimum, the City must undertake a proper analysis of impacts and potential need for mitigation, make specific findings, circulate the appropriate CEQA documents for a minimum of 30 days for public comment, and otherwise fully comply with the requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Common sense” considerations about density and impacts

While some areas may not see specific changes to the overall allowable density, in practice, density in Mill Valley has traditionally been limited mostly by parking requirements, with height, FAR, and setback limitations behind that. Therefore, offering adjustments to height, reductions of parking requirements and setbacks will almost certainly result in seeing development proposals that produce larger buildings with more units and, paradoxically, parking areas filling up more area on site.

Furthermore, under CEQA, cumulative impacts of all the proposed changes must be analyzed and considered, and mitigated if required.

Also, keep in mind that contrary to the assurances given in the Staff Report that each individual project will be subject to CEQA, in practice that rarely happens, even now. With zoning requirements relaxed in the future, developers will likely successfully argue that they are in compliance with the code and therefore exempt from CEQA (ironically, most likely under Sections 15305 and 15061(b)(3)).

Density ranges should be reduced per AB1537:

The range of allowable densities shown in the proposed zoning changes in Chapter 20, for multifamily zones (17 to 29 DU/acre), should be reduced to reflect the new “Suburban” designation for Marin County under AB1537.

AB1537 reduced the default density from 30 units per acre to 20 units per acre. The work done by ZDAC pre-dates this change in the State Law. Although I recognize that this is a public policy, "discretionary" decision, I believe we should follow this guidance, nonetheless.

The allowable density of 17 to 29 DU/acre is noted under the Purpose and Intent sections of:

The proposed allowable density should be reduced to 15 to 20 DU/acre to be better aligned with State Law and actual conditions.

For practical purposes it is unlikely that any developer could bring a proposal for over 20 DU/acre in any of the zones noted, and still comply with parking requirements.

Information about the extent and impacts of changes to the new mixed-use, by right, zoning for multifamily, residential development proposals, for Mill Valley’s downtown are misleading and not fully disclosed in the documentation.

On page 9, Line 217, of the Staff Report, Chart of permitted and conditional uses, none of the proposed changes about the proposed downtown, by right, mixed-use, multifamily over existing retail development is shown, and no comparative data about the present code and the new code are shown. The average reader would easily assume that this chart shows all the proposed changes to the zoning code. But they would be wrong.

For that information, a reader would have to dig through all the documents to find MVMC 20.45.020 Permitted Uses and Regulations, which states that

All provisions of Chapter 20.40 relating to C-G (General Commercial) districts shall apply in all C-D districts…

And further, they would have to read lines 722-733 (page 31) of the draft ordinance language to find chapters that discuss ground floor office use requiring a CUP in downtown is being removed from the C-N district (lines 696-707) and included in the new C-D zone (lines 735-753, Section 20.45.030), or to understand that the commercial uses allowed may be reviewed at a future time, but the current project/proposed regulations only address residential uses in commercial districts and developing the mixed-use (commercial/residential) zoning standards.

This is unacceptable. The chart on page 9 is incomplete and should be revised and recirculated. The documents available conceal the extent of impacts of making mixed use by right, in downtown. Significantly, these changes to multifamily development rights in downtown have the greatest potential impact on traffic, parking, and preservation of our small town character (a stated goal of the General Plan) of any of the proposed zoning changes in the entire proposal.

As written, the new provisions will certainly invite proposals for larger projects but there will be less ability to have them denied by the City. The provisions reduce public input by removing the current CUP process.

I asked Kari Svanstrom why the data for the downtown, multifamily uses was missing on the chart on page 9.

Her response was,

The new downtown commercial will have the same uses as the Neighborhood Commercial does now (sorry, I forgot to include Downtown Commercial in the title for that section). The change for ALL commercial zones is that residential above the first floor will no longer require a CUP.

Considering the significance of these changes to the zoning code, I don’t believe “sorry, I forgot to include Downtown Commercial in the title for that section” is a sufficient response. At a minimum this chart should be revised to reflect all the information the public needs to make an informed decision, and that revised chart should be recirculated prior to any decision-making hearing.

Unintended consequences of more multi-family zoning adds to traffic and drives out local serving business opportunities

The Proposal calls for significant re-zoning of parcels currently zoned "Professional Administrative Office P-A" or with the Land Use Designation of "Multi-family Residential 2 MFR-2" to be re-zoned as "Multi-Family Residential- Parkway RM-P", mostly on Miller Avenue.

The conversion of commercial use to residential will increase housing in Mill Valley but, paradoxically, will also eliminate existing opportunities for local employment, and add pressure to real estate prices (residential is more desirable to develop in Mill Valley), which can drive out local serving businesses. This is inconsistent with the overall goals of our General Plan, and it will undoubtedly increase traffic congestion, and ensure that more and more residents will have to drive greater distances to work and to make purchases or receive personal services.

Question on Blithedale Avenue commercial / mixed use zoning changes to conform to Housing Element (Blithedale Ave. from Park to Highway 101)

As a part of the 2015-2-23 Housing Element public approval process, commitments were made to the public, to adjust zoning on the commercial sections of Blithedale Avenue from Park School to Highway 101, to remove by right zoning for multifamily development, in order to preserve commercial zoning and protect local serving businesses. This effort was led by Mayor John McCauley. Why has this not been addressed in the proposed zoning changes, and when and how will it be addressed?

Thank you for your consideration.


Bob Silvestri

Community Venture Partners, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that facilitates and assists community based projects, programs and initiatives that demonstrate the highest principles of economic, social and environmental sustainability.