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Council Meeting 11-16-10 Agenda Item E-1

From: Michael Lambert <mlambert_at_(domain_name_was_removed)>
Date: Tue, 16 Nov 2010 17:09:54 -0800

Council Members,

With respect to the public hearing on Agenda Item E-1, I would like to offer the following comments on why the "Local Amendments or Ordinances" are not warranted.

First, the "Local Ordinance" process and my understanding of it.

Per the State of California’s Health and Safety Code, a city or county can make changes and modifications (more restrictive) to the provisions in the California Building Standards Code, (a code that all cities in California must periodically adopt), if the city or county determines that the addition of a “Local Ordinance” is reasonably necessary due to local climate, geological, or topographical conditions. But before the City can request a local ordinance it must first produce a “Findings and Deliberations” document that provides justification on one of the conditions referenced above and the City has done so in Section 1 of the proposed ordinance. The problem I have with their “Findings and Determinations” is that I can’'t help but believe that it is the intent of the Health and Safety Code provision is for the jurisdiction to call out conditions that are unique to that community. Conditions (climate, geological or topographical), that are over and above what may be found generally in California and conditions that may not be covered by the adoption of the latest version of the California Building Code. Conditions like the steep terrain and high winds found in the Oakland Hills or soil susceptible to liquefaction found in Foster City, these are legitimate grounds for a “Local Ordinance” that addresses new more stringent requirements to mitigate these unique conditions.

 From the City’s “Findings and Determinations” section:


  The City is located in Seismic Risk Zones D, E and F." ” So how is this unique relative to the California Building Code and perhaps not covered by the provisions of the Code? All of California is seismically active and the California Building Code addresses it.


  The City is located in a climatic zone with precipitation..." ” Yes, Menlo Park has some of the mildest climatic conditions not only in the state but probably in the world. How is this not covered by provisions of the California Building Code?

  Areas of the highly combustible dry grasses, weeds, brush and trees adjacent to structures are common to the City .” I would wager that our city has a higher percentage of manicured and irrigated landscaping than most cities in California, and the city is relatively flat. How is this different from anywhere else in California?

When I read the City’s “Findings and Determinations” written by staff, I am particularly troubled by it because of distortions intended to make “white” seem “black, with the intended goal of making a case for the “Local Ordinances”. Again, the creation of Findings and Determinations document is a required precursor for the proposed adoption “Local Ordinances” of more restrictive requirements to California Building Code.

I would encourage the Council to reject the “Local Ordinances” because they simply have not met the intent of California and the provisions of the Health and Safety Code. Staff through its "Findings and Determinations" is simply attempting to open the door to the "“Local Ordinance"” process, and doing so in a most unfortunate way. My feeling is that the "Local Ordinance" process is being abused. I would not be arguing this if Menlo Park were similar to the Oakland Hills.

Second, The Nexus and the Law of Unintended Consequences. My understanding from discussions with Bill McClure years ago is that there needs to be a nexus between the findings and the proposed ordinance. The findings as it relates to Geology suggests that Menlo Park is very unique relative to rest of the state and is not adequately covered by provisions of the California Building Standards Code, and I would challenge that claim. Look at removing the exemption for installing tile, or a countertop or a cabinet. If the ordinance is enacted removing these exemptions then the unintended consequence is that the majority of DIY homeowners are going to do the work themselves without a permit, and may end up doing the work in a shoddy manner. And how does a countertop relate to Geology. It is likely more work will be taken out of the hands of qualified sub- contractors who know the proper installation techniques, simply to avoid the cost and time of applying for a permit. Window awnings up to the 54" maximum will continue to appear without a permit, and how does this relate to Geology? Do you think families are going to get a building permit to install a swing set. The permit for one would likely be a significant percentage of the cost of the set, not to mention the delay in securing the permit.

For as long as I can remember the exemption for retaining walls have always been limited to a 4 foot maximum height, and this is every jurisdiction that I have worked in state-wide. Now the Building Department is asking that this be reduced to 2 feet. I would assume that there has been some failures of non-permitted walls between 2 feet and 4 feet that suggested the need for this new ordinance. In the next decade when there are the occasional failures of 2 foot walls, are we going to see a new request for permitting all retaining walls no matter what height. You might want ask the Building Department if there have been any documented incidents in the city of non-permitted retaining wall failures (walls 4 feet high or less) that have resulted in substantial damage, injury or death? If there is a need to reduce the maximum height of non-permitted retaining walls, I would really like to see the provision be part of the next generation of the California Building Code because you can be assured that there would certainly be qualified building specialists who have studied and weighed in on the matter.

Third, I would ask staff if they have petitioned the California Building Standards Commission for changes in the California Building Code that align with the changes they desire. This is the most ethical way to make changes to the Building Code as the Building Standards Commission has the staff and expertise to make proper and cost effective changes to the code. If they have not already done so, they really owe it to the city and its residents. If the changes are adopted in the next edition of the CBC, everyone in the state benefits.

Back to my earliest memories of the building code (1952 Edition, 340 4” x 6” pages still in my bookshelf) it was called the Uniform Building Code for good reason, it was the same throughout much of California (LA being an exception). This meant that everyone was building to the same requirements, what was correct for Palo Alto, was correct for Menlo Park and Redwood City. This breeds economy for the homeowner, designer and contractor, and every time we make a special requirement for Menlo Park, I can'’t help but believe that the cost to live in the city goes up. Affordability adds to the vitality of a community and to the constant renewal of it's housing stock. Unnecessary and ineffective ordinances increase housing costs and lead to unintended consequences
  doing work without permits.

I am sure staff has very good intensions, but when in doubt, keep it simple.


Michael A. Lambert
Architect    Received on Tue Nov 16 2010 - 17:13:25 PST

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