The Modesto City Council on Wednesday took a step to protect neighborhood identities and historic trees by voting to start work on new planning rules.
Complaints about remodeling projects in Modesto's college and La Loma neighborhoods led to the council vote, which directs the city's Planning Division to review options for neighborhood compatibility and heritage-tree ordinances.
"It is time Modesto grows up and recognizes it has a responsibility to preserve historic neighborhoods," Michael Erat, 64, told the council.
Council members unanimously supported the work on new ordinances, but several said they were concerned about infringing on property rights.
"I get a little bit nervous when we start telling people what they can and can't do with their property," Councilwoman Janice Keating said.
Brent Sinclair, Modesto's community and economic development director, said Modesto's zoning rules come up short in preserving neighborhood identity on issues ranging from the size of new projects to the division of small parcels.
Generally, the only tool residents have to question a neighbor's remodeling work is a review of two-story additions. Privacy can come into play when the city denies or adjusts a two-story addition, but neighborhood compatibility does not have a role in those studies.
"I have seen how this code section has failed some of the citizens of Modesto," said Amy Neumann, chairwoman of Modesto's Board of Zoning Adjustment and one of Erat's neighbors.
Erat and several of his Magnolia Avenue neighbors began pushing for a new zoning ordinance when two small builders bought a property on their street and showed plans to put up three homes where one stood.
The builders have finished one home with a second-story loft.
Neighbors complain that they weren't given a chance to protest the project because its developers own the adjacent lots. Normally, the city tells only immediate neighbors of plans for second-story additions.
Craig Harris, one of the home's builders, has told The Bee that the custom French colonial house will become a "jewel" on the block.
Other concerns about neighborhood compatibility have emerged in the La Loma area, where one remodeled home has become known as the "monster house." Residents on Scenic Court in east Modesto also called for a new ordinance when they protested plans to subdivide one lot on their block into four smaller parcels.
The council did not approve any spending for the Planning Division to conduct its research on new rules. Rather, Sinclair said, the city would work with its current consultants and employees to draft proposals that would go the Planning Commission for review.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.