Council Wants to Revisit the 37-Foot Downtown Height Limit

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

March 8, 2023

With some in the community raising objections to a change in Morro Bay’s planning codes for the Downtown Area, the City Council voted to study the issue a bit more.

Last year, the Community Development Department finished work on updating the Zoning Ordinance, the City municipal code that regulates building in town for things like side, front and back yard setbacks, allowable uses, and, in this case, a new height limitation for the Downtown.

Community Development Director Scot Graham told EBN that the Council “voted to form an Design District Ad Hoc Committee with two council members, two planning commissioners, two Chamber of Commerce reps, and some stakeholders from the community [business owners and regular citizens].”

He added that they had yet to pick the committee members or hold a formal meeting. “We will be working on it over the next couple of weeks,” Graham said.

The Downtown zoning area in this instance runs along the Morro Bay Boulevard corridor from the Roundabout at Quintana Road to Main Street and north to Beach Street. That zoning area is actually smaller than the so-called “Downtown Business District” — used in tracking sales tax receipts — which also extends south to Marina Street and down to Market Avenue.

The issue dates back to at least last October (2022), when the City Council finally got the rewritten Zoning Code, a process that had taken a couple of years to complete. The Council took a final vote on the new rules last November. But right away, there was a problem.

“At the end of the Nov. 22, 2022 Council meeting,” Graham said, “a majority of Council, under future agenda items, requested that the formation of a downtown design district committee be brought back for Council consideration.”

While it wound its way through the City advisory boards, finally being approved by the Planning Commission last September, the former City Council in October changed the height limits from 30 feet to 37 feet for the Downtown Area. 

The thinking was that a typical 3-story building would actually go above that 30-foot height due to roof pitches and things like HVAC units on the roof. The 37-foot height limit would allow full 3-story buildings.

The 30-foot limits had been in effect for many years and the concern was that once 37-feet was allowed, it would be allowed to go up even higher with future updates. 

Indeed, that’s what’s happened in San Luis Obispo, which is now allowing 5-story buildings — in excess of 50 feet tall — in its Downtown zone.

Right now Morro Bay has just a handful of downtown buildings that are 3-stories, and they are all motels. The newest one would be the Ascot Suites motel on Morro Bay Boulevard at Morro Avenue that was built in the late-1990s.

Each zoning area in town has its own unique codes to follow. For example, the height limit on the Embarcadero is 24 feet, which limits new developments to two stories. 

But State Law in some cases dictates things like allowed uses. Indeed, several years ago the State Legislature passed a law that basically eliminated so-called Residential-1 zoning. Under R-1, only single-family homes are allowed.

The State opened that up to include multi-family developments like duplexes, apartment houses, and condos in R-1 zones in a effort to increase housing units in what is arguably the most desirable area to live — a neighborhood of single family homes — in any town.

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