The Laws of Designing a City: Urban Planning

Ever wondered how a city gets built?  Why certain types of businesses are located where they are or the design of signs?  What about the laws that dictate how a person designs or expands their home?  These issues and many, many others are dealt with through urban planning.

Urban planning (or Land Use Planning) can be defined as “The process by which public agencies – mostly local governments – determine the intensity and geographical arrangements of various land uses in a community.”
More simply: “The process by which society decides what gets built where.”

The above definition is from one of the first lectures I attended for my land use planning class.  While this topic is not my area of particular interest, it was interesting to learn and understand the laws that shape the way cities get built.

City of Westminster seal.  Image from City of Westminster.

City of Westminster seal. Image from City of Westminster.

One of the assignments for the class was to attend a planning commission meeting, which is held by each city in their city halls and is presided over by the planning commission, usually five members.  Planning commissions are part of the larger planning departments found in each city.  These meetings are usually open to the public but because the issues dealt with are usually only of interest to involved parties, general citizens are not present as I discovered when I attended my meeting.

(Note: The majority of the below text is from a paper I wrote for the class.)

On April 1, 2015, I attended the planning commission meeting for the city of Westminster, California.  This city holds meetings every first and third Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.  There are five members, Don Anderson (Chair), Carlos Manzo (Vice Chair), Lee Lieberg, Andrew Nyugen and Alex Vo (Commissioners). The meeting that evening consisted of four cases, a discussion about updating the general plan and matters from the planning commission.  The meeting lasted until about 9:00 p.m.

The meeting was held in the Council Chambers.  The room was much smaller than I had anticipated with several rows of chairs for public seating.  In front was a row of seating for the planning commission, which sat on a raised platform.  The staff sat at two tables on either side.  There were computers at every seat (five for the planning commission and 3 for the staff).  There were only two staff members present.  One was an older white male; the other was a younger Asian male named Wong.  The chair was an older white male who seemed to be the eldest.  The other four members consisted of two Asian men, one white man and one Hispanic man.  In attendance were three women (including myself) and three men while two more men showed up later.  All except me and one other person, possibly a classmate, had cases being discussed that night.

The meeting began with a roll call, a salute to the flag, ex parte communications (site visits), special presentations (none), oral communication (public addressing the commission), approval of the last meeting’s minutes and a description of the public hearing process.  After that each case was discussed.  The first case involved an amendment to a conditional use permit regarding a Verizon Wireless tower.  The antenna design was seven feet wide and now is set to three feet to make it less obvious.  The commission liked the new design.  The representative for Verizon spoke and wanted to eliminate condition number nine regarding the fence for the property.  The complaint mostly involved the installation of a new fence (for partially hiding the tower) with a different design and who would be responsible for it.  The land is owned by Southern California Edison and is also occupied by a nursery.  It was suggested that any changes made by the nursery, including the fence, should be communicated to SCE who would then inform the City and Verizon.

The next case was a zone text amendment concerning massage establishments in which the staff recommended the removal of the CUP since a new law (AB 1147) had been passed, rendering the CUP unneeded.  This new law imposes a 1,500 feet distance between massage establishments to reduce crowding.  No one spoke during the public hearing section on this issue, thus it was the quickest case discussed.

The next case involved a zoning clearance for the reconstruction of a single family home.  This one was debated and was discussed in length.  The main issues were consistency, design and size.  The staff person carefully defined the terms consistency and design to show how the proposed home would be in relation to the surrounding homes.  The current home is 1,218 square feet while the proposed one is 5,900.  It would be built in a neighborhood where most homes are 1,200 to 3,200 square feet with only a few being two-stories.  The focus was on the massive size of the building and that it might require a three car garage unless the size was reduced.

Plans for the design of the house expansion.  Image from the agenda provided at the meeting.

Plans for the design of the house expansion. Image from the agenda provided at the meeting.


One commissioner commented a lot on this issue, mostly in opposition of the current proposal.  He noted it would barely fit the setbacks as the lot is only about half an acre.  He expressed his opinion that the rooms were oversized and the building did not seem like just a single family home.  He said his approval would mandate it be halved in size.  The rest of the commission suggested a 4,000 square foot maximum be allowed.  The chair also stated that the builder could get rid of the patios to reduce the size of the home and that they should present the redesign of the home as an image that is overlaid with a photo of the actual neighborhood to view how it would look in relation to the other homes.

Plans for the design of the house expansion.  Image from the agenda provided at the meeting.

Plans for the design of the house expansion. Image from the agenda provided at the meeting.

Methods to make the home appear smaller were discussed.  They proposed the second story have smaller blocks rather than one big one.  The commission agreed that the style of the home was similar enough to the surrounding homes.  They concluded that the applicant must submit a redesigned proposal for the next meeting.  The motion was approved four to one.  The applicant showed up too late and was denied the opportunity to speak.

The next case involved the design of a sign for a new Popeye’s restaurant.  The discussion mostly regarded whether to extend the skirt or not and the asymmetrical look of the current sign proposal.  The chair specifically did not like the asymmetrical look and suggested chopping off about 3 feet from the right side of the sign.  The two applicants argued that such a change would make the sign less effective.  They said that because the street there is big and the cars move quickly, a larger sign is needed to catch people’s attention.  They also could not move the sign over to make it symmetrical because of setback limits (three feet from the road).  There were also some questions about the material and possibly matching the colors of the sign to the Popeye’s. In the end, the second design option presented was approved three to two.

Plans for the design of the Popeye's sign.  Image from the agenda provided at the meeting.

Plans for the design of the Popeye’s sign. Image from the agenda provided at the meeting.

Afterwards a quick run through about updating the general plan was done by two consultants.  It mostly focused on a new vision statement, which was quite long.  Then the chair said that for the next meeting he would like to address the issue of making a zone text amendment, which would phase out billboards.  His reasoning was that they do not generate much income and they do not benefit the community.

The last issue concerned the possible widening of the minimum parking space.  One commissioner said he encountered parking spaces that were smaller than the minimum nine by 18 feet.  The staff informed him that some spaces may be non-conforming compact spaces. This made any motion irrelevant; however, they proposed trying to get code enforcement to check parking space size more or have compact spaces be marked with “compact” or a “c”.

In conclusion, parts of the meeting matched my expectations while others did not.  Attendance was less than I thought it would be, but it was also more interesting.  A wide variety of issues were discussed from phone towers to parking spaces and most issues were given equal discussion time.  Although a public meeting, it seemed more like a private conversation between the commission members and staff as they mainly just talked to each other without much regard to the audience.  Some people did try to interject, which would be followed by the chair saying that this was not open to public hearing but asking if it should be now, which was usually approved by the other members.  Once the applicants had spoken, they left.  By the end, there was no one left but the other possible student and myself.

While I felt the meeting was rather long and it would have been nicer if it started earlier, it was good to see that this kind of process is occurring since most people do not know about such processes.  The material learned in class definitely was useful for attending this meeting as it helped me understand what was being discussed, except for the massage case, which involved laws I am not familiar with, such as AB 1147.  Overall this was a good experience for viewing how the planning commission actually deals with issues and what kinds of issues are dealt with throughout the year.

A copy of the meeting’s minutes can be found here.


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