HOAs and Design Review Boards

One of my clients refused to obtain their homeowners association’s approval before starting construction. The HOA was worried that the new second story would block neighbors’ ocean views (always a sensitive issue in coastal areas of L.A.)

The city issued a building permit, and construction began. When the steel columns and beams were in place, the project was brought to an abrupt halt by several neighbors–all of them injunction-serving attorneys. The remodel eventually needed to be completely redesigned, with all new foundations and steelwork.
You may think that if your project complies with the zoning code’s requirements on the size, height and shape of the house, that’s all you need. But no–in many areas of the city a project must also be approved by a homeowners’ association or a local design review board.

It is always best to try and work with the neighbors and the HOA, and get their approval in advance.If you live in a neighborhood with a homeowners’ association, look in the property’s deed to find the association’s CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions). These describe the association’s design requirements and procedures for getting approval. Most associations also have an architectural committee that can provide specific guidance before beginning design. Get to know members of the committee, and obtain their recommendations.

In addition to homeowners’ associations, local design review boards are often empowered by city-issued Specific Plans (an extension of the zoning code) that apply design rules to individual neighborhoods or areas within the city. To find out if a property is subject to a Specific Plan, go to the ZIMAS web site, enter the address and then look under Planning and Zoning. If a Specific Plan applies, you will see a link to the plan itself, which describes the geographical area it covers, and identifies design guidelines and restrictions.

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Homeowners’ associations and Specific Plans can both impose rules that are tighter and more stringent than the normal zoning requirements for the area. In the case of Specific Plans, the local community’s design review board (or architectural review board) needs to approve a project before the city will issue a building permit (although there are exceptions). In most cases the owners and their architect present a project at a hearing, explain the project’s features, and receive the board’s (and the attending public’s) response. Boards can approve or reject a project outright, or suggest changes. It is worth paying attention to those suggested changes.

An example of a Specific Plan can be seen here.
City of Los Angeles’ description of a design review board’s procedure, makeup and action is here.
An example of a homeowners’ association CC&Rs can be seen here.