The glorious day has arrived…our permits are ready to pull!! Now we just need choose our contractor and we will be off and running.

Just a quick post to say that we are at the home stretch of approval process. I haven’t posted an update in over two years due to the slow pace but I’m happy to say that we got our Coastal Permit approval in early 2008 and now we are just finishing up with LA County. The project is out for bid and only months away from breaking ground!! More to come as the project gets underway.

Before we can get a hearing scheduled with California Coastal Commission to approve our project we must first satisfy all of their submittal requirements for them to deem our package complete. Over the last few months we’ve been going back and forth with them adding additional items to the package and I believe at this point we are down to the last few things they are looking for. Some of the additional items that we are just about to submit are:

  • A revised grading plan – Due to the fact that the Coastal Commission has determined that our land is considered ESHA (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat) their guideline is to limit the proposed development area to 10,000 sq ft…ours was a bit over that number. (The Commission defines the development area as including the building pad and all graded slopes, all structures, and parking areas, but not the area of one access driveway or roadway and one hammerhead safety turnaround, as required by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.)
  • A Full Biological Study – we had originally thought that the work our Landscape Designer/Coastal Resource specialist, Marny Randall had done would satisfy the Coastal Commissions need for a bio study, but after further consideration the Commission decided that they wanted us to do a full biological study by a qualified biologist. If anyone’s curious what’s entailed in a full Bio Study you can have a look at the Commission guidelines.
  • Alternatives Analysis – Coastal wanted a more detailed analysis of site alternatives that would reduce the amount of grading on the slopes off the pre-existing pad.

At this point I can’t imagine that they would ask for anything more…we should be submitting this last bit by the end of next week and hopefully getting a date for our Commission hearing!!

*** Tip…if you are considering building in an area that is subject to the California Coastal Commission be aware that the Commission is constantly revising their requirements and policies. Keeping up to date with these requirements and policies can save you a lot of time and money. In the last few years since we’ve purchased our property the Coastal Commission has added: new ridgeline restrictions, Habitat Impact Mitigation Fees, requirements for full Biological studies, etc.

One great way to keep up to date with their current requirements it to check out their website. Just find your district and have a read through a few current applications…they are in PDF format here:

We got our first correspondence back from the coastal commission a few weeks ago and we’ve been officially assigned one of their planners, Lillian Ford. The letter that the Commission sent was in response to reviewing our coastal application and to let us know that we needed to include a bit more information before they could process it.

Some of the additional info that the Coastal Commission required from us was:

  • Alternatives Analysis – discussing any other possible locations for the house or design alternatives that might lessen the impact on the environment
  • Visual Impact Analysis – discussing the visual impacts that the project might have from any surrounding public recreation areas, trails, scenic roadways, etc.
  • Build Pad Area Calculation – detailed breakdown of the building pad that includes all structures and graded areas.
  • Biological Study – discussing the various plants and animal life that exist on my property.
  • Brush clearance: a topographic plan that depicts the required brush clearance.

Because much of the additional info that the Coastal Commission was looking for was analysis of the project…which can be kind of vague and hiring people to do this kind of work can be costly, Steve recommended that we take a trip up to Ventura County to visit the Coastal Commission on a day that Lillian would have counter hours…this way we could meet her face to face and sort out the detail of what would really be required.

I thought that was a great idea…I’m a huge fan meeting all the people that are involved in a project face to face…it becomes a much more personal experience and if any issues do come up, they are much easier to deal with when you actually know who the person is at the other end of the phone or email!

So last Monday Steve and I took a drive up the coast and met with Lillian. We brought her some of the additional info she was looking for and talked for a while about our project. As it turns out, the aerial photographs we brought that day answered a lot of her questions with regard to the “Alternatives Analysis” as well as the “Visual Impact Analysis” and it turns out that our “Landscape Designer / Coastal Resource Specialist” had already done much of the “Biological Study” when she was preparing our Fuel Mod plan.

It was great meeting Lillian and after speaking with her we agreed that we already had most of the information she was looking for. From Lillian’s remarks it seemed as though she thought the project would go quickly and smoothly and that it was in line with the Coastal Commissions guidelines and requirements.

This week Steve is putting the last bits of the additional requested info together that we will hopefully deliver to the coastal commission later this week. After that we could be looking at a few more months for the approval and then it’s building time!!

Last week Steve Yett and I took a trip out to Ventura and submitted our Coastal Development Application to the California Coastal Commission. The package we submitted contains all the permissions and approvals we’ve obtained thus far in our journey to build the Burns residence.

I anticipate this to be a very smooth process due to the fact that Steve and I consulted with the Coastal Commission early in the stages of design. For this consultation we brought detailed site photographs so we could talk about the house design and weed out any potential cautionary areas before we got too far along.

One part of the early design that could have been questionable was a second story guest unit. The original idea was that it would be positioned on top of the garage. After speaking with the Coastal Commission, it was decided that putting the guest unit under the garage would be the better option. Along with the guest unit, there were a few other small considerations we took in after that initial consultation.

** Tip: If you are building in the Coastal Zone I would recommend checking in with the California Coastal Commission as early as possible with your design, as making changes at this stage, both big and small are much easier to deal with and accommodate.

For those interested in reading about the California Coastal Commission: Visit their site.

We finally got our Los Angeles County Health Department approval for the design of our septic system! This was a huge step for us, as this approval was the last major piece we needed to be able to submit our package into the California Coastal Commission.

For those that don’t know about septic systems here’s the basic rundown…if your land is in an area that is not serviced by a sewer system then you most likely will have to have your own septic system. This involves drilling seepage pits or having a leech field. In my case I had to drill five seepage pits. Two of the five are for current use and the other three are for future use. The idea is that all the water and waste from toilets, sinks, showers, tubs, etc will leave the house and go into a treatment tank, once treated it will flow into the seepage pits and then drain slowly back into the earth. Over time the pits can get clogged up and fail, thus the reason for the future pits.

The number of seepage pits you are required to have is based on the number of bedrooms and fixtures your house has as well as the calculation of how quickly the fluids drain from the pits. The drainage calculation is determined by performing a “perc test”. A perc test is basically drilling a handful of test pits and having a water truck fill them up with water and then checking the drainage rates over a certain period of time. The slower the pits drain the more pits you will probably need.

** Here’s something important to keep in mind…In the early stages of building you might be tempted to try and save some money by skimping on the septic system and design only the minimum required for your house plan…if during the building process you decide you want to add another room or perhaps later on down the road you’d like to do an addition to your house, you might not be able to based on the current capacity of your septic system. Another thing to keep in mind…because part of the calculation to come up with the size of the septic system is based on the number of bedrooms, it is important to realize that offices, hobby rooms, etc are considered bedrooms by LA County. For example, our plans show the main house as three bedrooms, and office and a hobby room…but when talking about the floor plan in septic system terms, it’s viewed as a five bedroom.

My point here is that the septic system can be a big constraint on the future size of the house and one would be much better off designing for growth in the early stages.

On Friday my wife, Steve and I met with our Landscape Designer/Coastal Resource Specialist to talk about the kind of plant life we would like around our house. Because The Kim and I already love the look of the indigenous vegetation in the area and we are also keen on the idea of not having to spend a lot of time or money in upkeep, we weren’t planning on going crazy here…perhaps a bit of lushness for the entry way…maybe a handful of citrus trees…a bit of grass…in general a pretty minimal landscaping design.
As it turns out our landscape designer was very like minded and what she suggested was a scheme that would blend in with what’s already there and blur the boundary between our building site and the rest of our property. Perfect…at this point were thinking this is going to be easy!

My wife and I came to the meeting prepared with tons of magazines and books that contained examples of the kinds of landscaping we like…but instead of talking about the landscaping details we spent most of the time talking about the Fire Department and Coastal Commission rules and requirements that we’d have to abide by to be able to get approval to build our house.

As I mentioned in the last post, due to where our land is located, almost everything growing on it is considered Environmentally Sensitive Habitat (ESHA) and because ESHA has to be removed to make room for a building pad as well as a significant clearing of it around the perimeter of any proposed structure for fire protection, it’s not as easy as one would think to put together a simple landscape design.

The Coastal Commission’s primary concerns are environmental and seek to protect the indigenous plant and animal life, as well as keeping the general look of the area as natural as possible…a very noble thing to do.

The Fire department is concerned with clearing the highly flammable plant life out of the area and away from the house or other structures, to provide safety for the home owners as well as the fire fighters who may have the occasion to be in the area fighting a fire.

As you can see these two goals are in direct conflict with each other…because most of the native vegetation of the area is highly flammable the fire department would like you to clear away as much vegetation as possible…while the Coastal Commission wants you to preserve as much vegetation as possible.

This puts the land owner in a situation where it’s impossible to comply with both concerns due to the fact that at least some vegetation will have to be removed to make way for a house. Well…our Landscape Designer/Coastal Resource Specialist informed us that the California Coastal Commission has, in the last few years, come up with a “Habitat Impact Mitigation Fee” which needs to be paid prior to the issuance of a coastal development permit. This “in-lieu” fee is paid to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to mitigate adverse impacts to chaparral habitat ESHA.

This fee is based on removal of ESHA per square footage of the Fuel Modification Zones (see below for definition) and because almost all vegetation in the area is considered ESHA, it would seem that anyone building in the area will be subject to them.

From what I understand the square footage will be based on the area you are clearing for your house, your driveway and the perimeter around the structures that the fire dept. requires.

These fees can be very significant…so if you are considering building in an area that is regulated by the California Coastal Commission make sure you do some research on fuel modification to prevent the huge sticker shock!

Fuel Modification Zones Definition:
A fuel modification zone is a strip of land where combustible vegetation has been removed and/or modified and partially or totally replaced with more adequately spaced, drought-tolerant, fire-resistant plants in order to provide a reasonable level of protection to structures from wild land and vegetation fires. Development occurring within hazardous fire areas (e.g., foothills, mountains, non-irrigated former farming areas, and other lands containing combustible vegetation) requires modification of natural vegetation at the urban interface.

Today we hired a Civil Engineer and a Landscape Designer/Coastal Resource Specialist!

I don’t know if you guys have been reading in the news paper about construction slowing down and such…well I can’t say I see that here in Southern California. We are at the point where we need to hire a Civil Engineer to put a grading plan together for our site and it has taken us weeks to even get call backs from a lot of these people. Upon receiving a call back from one company, I was told that it would be 2-3 months before they would be able to start on any work!!

For those that don’t know what a Civil Engineer does…It’s my understanding that it’s their job to put a grading and drainage plan together for the home site that meets the counties requirements. This plan basically lets the county know how much dirt is going to be removed, pushed around or added to the building site to create a proper building pad. It also entails designing a drainage and erosion control system so that water flows through the property in a way that will minimize any possibility of structure or property damage to our property or those surrounding it.

Steve also pointed out to me:

“Grading plans are also what the grading contractors bids and what the winning contractor follows. If changes are made in the field by the grader for any reason (ease of construction being the usual reason), the changes are also supposed to be depicted on the plans and re-approved by the project engineer, the plan check engineer and geotechnical consultants as well.”


After a few more calls this week I was able to find a Civil Engineer that came highly recommended and had the time to fit us into his schedule. When I talked to him he was very enthusiastic about the project and seemed like a genuinely nice guy…great…I can’t wait to get started!

Due to the fact that we are in an area governed by the California Coastal Commission, we also need to hire a Landscape Designer to prepare a “Conceptual Landscape and Fuel Modification Plan”. Because we are in an area that is covered with environmentally sensitive habitat (ESHA) we have restrictions on the natural vegetation that we are allowed to remove during the building process…as well as what kind of vegetation we are allowed to put back in. On top of the environmental restrictions…that whole area of Malibu and the Santa Monica mountains is a fire hazard area, so the landscape plan has to be approved by the Coastal Commission as well as the Fire Dept.

The Landscape Designer/Coastal Resource Specialist that we hired has a particular expertise in this part of Los Angeles County and when you are dealing with entities like the California Coastal Commission and the Fire Department for environmental and fire safety issues it pays to hire the best.

Once we have the completed grading, landscape and fuel mod plans we will be ready to put those in a package with our already approved Los Angeles County Regional Planning stamped house plans and our soon to be Health Department approved septic system plans and submit the whole bunch of them into the California Coastal Commission.

Every day it gets a little closer!

It seems Steve is finding some innovative uses for this site. Instead of having to mail or drive a bunch of documents around to people or agencies involved with our project, he’s starting to just direct them to…a huge time saver!!

Here is what Steve just emailed me:

I called the County Geologic Reviewer the other day. It was just your usual touch-base, “Hey how are you doing? I’ve got this project coming down the pipe have you changed any of your submission requirements since the last project that I should know about?” conversation….

And she started to tell me that it was all still case-by-case and she would have to see what we were doing kind of thing…. At which point, I had her pull up the, and she was able to look at all of the plans, as well as the extensive collection of site photos. I could tell that she was blown away by the wealth of information at her finger tips. We were able to have an amazingly comprehensive initial conversation, that I wouldn’t have been able to have without mailing her a huge packet of documents…. or driving down to beautiful downtown Alhambra. The only way that things could’ve possibly been better is if we had a pdf of the geotechnical report available on the site. But, given that the area is known for having exceptionally hard volcanics, that wasn’t even really an issue.

I could tell that she was completely blown away. I also could tell that she was enjoying being a part of the new technology. She seemed to be having fun just perusing the site. It reminded me of the time that I cracked open my laptop to show a planchecker a fly-through movie of one of the more complicated hillside room additions that I did that the planchecker was having a hard time visualizing. I think the only way things could’ve been more futuristic would’ve been if we went to work that day in solar-powered hovercrafts and had 0 calorie / 0 carb Dove Bars for lunch.

A bit more progress to report. Steve took our plans down to the Fire Department yesterday and was able to get our Fire Dept. Coastal Commission approval.

This basically states that our plans show we have room for a fire truck to get into our driveway and also have the proper turnaround to get it out. It also states that we have proper access around the house as well.

Along with the Health Dept. approval for the septic system, the Fire Dept. approval was another that we needed before we can submit our whole package to the California Coastal Commission.

Here’s a blurb from an email Steve sent regarding the process:

The Fire Department Plans Examiner ran his planometer around the main residence and determined that we were providing the required 5′ minimum width, 300′ maximum travel distance “Clear To Sky” from the required Fire Department turnaround. He determined that we were in compliance. And he issued the “COASTAL COMMISSION APPROVAL ONLY” for access. We then discussed the items that would be required to receive the Building + Safety Final Approval.

Exciting stuff!

Next Page »