Like all densely-populated southern California areas, the South Bay has strict zoning laws.
California zoning can be very confusing. And the laws in Manhattan Beach are different from those in neighboring Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes Estates. Therefore, it’s important to use a local design/build team that understands California zoning and restrictions in the particular city where you want to build. In some cities, regulations may even differ from neighborhood to neighborhood.
In Manhattan or Hermosa Beach, the first thing to understand is that you’ll likely end up purchasing a parcel that already has a house on it. We just don’t have many empty lots in the South Bay. So if you want a custom-build—a home that exactly suits your tastes and the needs of your family—you will have to renovate or tear down the existing home.
California Zoning: Manhattan Beach
There are no color or architectural style restrictions when building in Manhattan Beach. But there are restrictions on building height and parcel size. There are also landscaping restrictions. One issue that comes up a lot is fencing. A fence can be no taller than six feet, unless you get approval in writing from every owner whose property the fence will touch. With approval, you can build it to eight feet.
Manhattan Beach Neighborhoods
Manhattan Beach is made up of four distinct sections. Some of those sections are further divided into neighborhoods. Each section has its own unique amenities, and its own building regulations.
Zoning in The Strand
In The Strand, the beach is your front yard. For two miles, Strand houses nestle beside a paved path that runs from the Pacific Palisades all the way to Torrance. The path always has walkers, joggers or bikers. Homeowners have a front-row view to volleyball tournaments, surfers and brilliant sunsets melting into the foamy Pacific. You can hear the waves from your patio, and your neighbors may be celebrities. You’re within walking distance of the shops and cafes downtown.
Most lots in the Strand are 30 x 100 feet, but some are 30 x 150. You can purchase double lots, but you can’t purchase triple lots. (In 2008, a homeowner built a 16,000 square foot mansion, and a lot of neighbors weren’t happy about it. That was the end of triple lots!) Even so, the largest of these parcels offer space for amenities like an ocean-front spa or a basketball court.
Zoning in The Sand Section
The Sand Section is vibrant and highly walkable. It includes downtown, with its boutiques and restaurants. In fact, there are dozens of “walk streets” in this section, which only allow foot traffic and lead to the beach. This means your children can play in the street. And you never have to worry about them, or your escape-artist pet, being hit by a car.
The Sand Section offers gorgeous ocean views and a strong sense of community. Casual neighbor-gatherings happen almost daily, since the homes are close together and outdoor spaces are communal. You can easily chat with your neighbor from your individual patios. But while the neighborhoods are close-knit, The Sand Section doesn’t get the same kind of tourist traffic as The Strand. You’ll probably know the people you see from your patio, and hanging with them will become a valued part of your daily routine.
In the Sand Section, parcels are 30 x 90 feet or 2,700 square feet total. An oversized lot may be 33 x 100 feet. Some lots in the El Porto (public surfing beach) part of the Sand Section are even smaller—about 30 x 45. So having a design/build construction team that knows how to maximize space is important. The good news is that, in most of the Sand section, homes can be up to 30 feet tall. And you can build three-story homes. In other parts of the city, only 26 feet and two stories are allowed.
If you are building on a Walk Street, your builder and designer will need to be aware of encroachment area regulations. This is land that connects to your property and to the street. For practical purposes, it seems like your property, but legally it belongs to the city. This means you have to keep your landscaping and any fencing at 3.5 feet or under. Known as the “view ordinance,” this code is meant to protect your neighbor’s view. The up side is that you can be confident that your own view is safe from your neighbor’s whims!
Zoning In The Hill Section
The “hills” in the Hill Section are actually sand dunes. Although now, they’ve been paved over and built on, so they seem like normal hills. However, the varying grades allows sweeping ocean views, even though you’re further from the beach.
The Hill Section offers large parcels and wide streets. If you want a swimming pool, a tennis court, an extra garage, or a large yard, this may be the section for you. The parcels tend to be 40-50 feet by 140-150 feet, so they’re over a third larger than the average Sand Section lot. However, total structural height is limited to 26 feet, and you’re only allowed to built two above-ground stories.
Zoning In The Tree Section
Parcels in the Tree Section are usually 40 feet wide and anywhere from 100-135 feet long. You can build two stories, up to 26 feet. This part of town is known for its large, fresh-smelling eucalyptus. Many of these trees are protected by a city ordinance, which means your tree-lined street is likely to always be a tree-lined street. This part of the city doesn’t offer ocean views, but it does offer more bang for your buck. It’s family-friendly, with a small-town, classic neighborhood feel.
California Zoning: Sprawl Is Out, Vertical Is In
At White Sands Coastal, we like to build “upside-down houses.” This means rather than putting all the personal spaces, such as bedrooms, on the top floor, we put the key living spaces up there. Often we’ll have a living room, dining room and kitchen on a third story, so that you’ll have the best ocean views in the places you spend the most time.
We raise formal front doors above street level, so that guests enter the home on the second story. This is also where we’ll put most of the bedrooms and full bathrooms. The lower level—we call it the beach level—is where homeowners will most often enter, through the garage.
On a walk street, we often have a beach level living or rec room that opens up via a big, floor-to-ceiling door system. This way, you have an integrated indoor-outdoor entertaining space. And when the door is open, you can have spontaneous neighbor encounters.
Go With An Elevator
Building vertically often means including an elevator, to avoid time and energy spent running up and down stairs. White Sands puts four-stop elevators in almost every home we build. You’ll understand how amazing this is the first time you have to get groceries to a third-floor kitchen.
California Zoning: Outdoor Spaces
Want a roof deck, or better yet, a roof deck with a hot tub? You’ll have to build in Hermosa or Redondo Beach. Roof decks aren’t allowed in Manhattan Beach or Palos Verdes, but you can still have large outdoor spaces with spa-like amenities and amazing views. We compensate by building really nice exterior decks on the top level, with fireplaces and cozy furniture. These outdoor spaces feel like an extension of the indoor living space.
In every home, White Sands incorporates framing to support the additional weight of a rooftop or top-level balcony hot tub. Even if you don’t want a hot tub now, you may want one later. It’s much easier to add it during the building process, than to try and bolster the framing later.
Privacy in Dense Vertical Living
We can landscape for privacy with vines, and we can close off an area with fast-growing trees. Sometimes we also add water features to a garden or patio, such as a fountain. This muffles street noise and makes a space more meditative.
One of the reasons it’s critical to use a design/build team, rather than two separate firms, is that many parts of the building process are best started as early as possible. This includes landscaping, where planting early in the build gives trees time to grow.
The Importance of Window Placement
Window placement and treatments are an oft-underestimated privacy game-changer and another reason you want an integrated team to build your new home.
White Sands works off of a plan in elevation and window schedules, but we don’t order windows until we have a frame and walk the openings. This is to ensure that your neighbor’s house doesn’t have a massive window looking into your master bathroom. We’ll order these items when we are already the field, because we build to maximize view and get as much privacy as possible.
Mechanized window shades that raise and lower at the touch of a button are key in a place like Manhattan Beach, which gets an average of 286 sunny days a year. But the motors for these types of window treatments need to be installed during the framing phase, which means you definitely want your builders to have good communication with your interior designer. This is easy when they’re all part of the same firm.
California Zoning: Enclosed Garages
Manhattan Beach requires each new build to have garage space for three cars. Hermosa requires garage space for two. But what if you collect cars, have several teenage drivers, or want to use some of your garage space for storage?
One solution is to include a car lift in your garage, which allows you to store your convertible mid-air during the week and park your commuter car beneath it. Then, when the weekend comes, you can switch up your vehicles.
Other Southern California Beach Towns To Consider
We adore Manhattan Beach, which is a great community for young families, as well as intentional living enthusiasts. But we’re also fond of (and code experts for) Hermosa, Redondo and Palos Verdes. So which beach town is the right town for you?
Hermosa Beach is a great place for young professionals, with a lively bar and restaurant scene. If you want a more suburban feel and the convenience of big box stores, Redondo Beach is your best bet. Redondo also has a harbor and marina, if boating is your thing. Seeking a sprawling estate on a cliff over the Pacific? Palos Verdes Estates has a slightly older, more-established population and lots of rugged land for hiking and biking.
We’re Here To Help
If you know you want to build in the South Bay, but you’re not sure where, give us a call. We’d be happy to speak with you about your vision for your new home and the type of community you’re looking for. We live and work here and have expert advice about which town (and its building codes and California zoning restrictions) are best suited for your dream house.
Thanks for reading,
Hawlie Ohe heads White Sands Interiors, and she and her husband are raising two boys along the South Bay coast. Hawlie brings the curiosity that fueled her first career, as a journalist, to her interior design approach: Who are you, who do want to be, and how can this space get you there? Great design makes you feel present and engaged, and Hawlie is here for it. Because she wants to help you be “here” (in this space, in this moment), too.