City of Santa Monica

Staff Report

Introduction and Adoption of an Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance Allowing the Establishment and Regulation of Public Safety Facilities as a Permitted Use in Some Beach Areas within the Open Space Zoning District


Department:Development Review 3Sponsors:
Category:07. Ordinances

Recommended Action

Recommended Action

Staff recommends that the City Council introduce and adopt an Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance allowing public safety facilities as a permitted use in some beach locations within the Open Space Zoning District and establishing interim standards to ensure land use compatibility.

Staff Report Body

Executive Summary

The Santa Monica Fire Department (SMFD) currently operates a network of five permanent fire stations covering our 8.3 square mile city. Changing traffic patterns and shifts in call demands have created longer than optimal response times in parts of the community, including the Pier and coastline.  In June 2019, a temporary facility, consisting of an existing building and a portable trailer, was introduced as a pilot in response to data that showed that the northern beach area had poor response times in comparison to other portions of the City.  For this facility to remain in place and for the City to consider potential development of a permanent station to serve the beach, the Zoning Ordinance must be amended to allow the use. 


An Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance is proposed to allow SMFD to locate a fire station at the beach on land that is zoned for Open Space, which currently prohibits Public Safety Facilities.  It is proposed to permit the use by right (“P”) with appropriate standards to ensure compatibility.  The ordinance makes findings for an emergency ordinance based on the desire to extend the pilot and consider ongoing operations, enhancing ongoing emergency service for the visiting public and those that reside in the north beach area.



The Santa Monica Fire Department collects data on service and response times in order to analyze the effectiveness of its network and its service to the community.  A 2019 survey determined that response times to the northern beach area lagged behind the service provided to other parts of the city. Although SMFD is conducting a comprehensive facility planning process, there was an opportunity to address this disparity with the pilot project launched in June 2019.  Initially scheduled for a four-month period during peak beach season, it has been extended based on initial positive results


The pilot location is in the northern portion of beach parking lot located at 1100 Palisades Beach Road (Lot 3N), where the City owns a vacant commercial building that was being used for storage.  In addition to using the building, a trailer was brought in to allow firefighters to work shifts and remain onsite full-time.  The station was equipped with a variety of vehicles to allow firefighters to reach their destinations as quickly as possible in this unique environment, including smaller vehicles, beach vehicles, bicycles and one full-size fire truck (“big red”).  SMFD reached out to nearby neighbors, who are supportive of the nearby public safety presence.


Since commencing operation of the temporary facility, dubbed Station #7, average response times within the area served were reduced by 1.5 minutes, with the most significant difference being service to the Pier which was reduced by more than two minutes (34%).  The nearby proximity was critical in responses that saved three lives during the peak season among 600 calls to treat other emergency situations over the last six months.

The pilot project also positively impacted operations at other fire stations that previously were called upon to respond to emergencies at the beach. Accordingly, SMFD seeks to continue the temporary fire station pilot for an additional period while considering options to consider a permanent station on the site.  SMFD, Public Works and Planning & Community Development staff have been working together on this process.


The beach area is zoned as Parks and Open Space (OS).  The Zoning Ordinance does not permit Public Safety Facilities as a use in the OS District, preventing the City from allowing the station as a temporary or permanent use.  If the City wishes to provide enhanced SMFD service at the pilot location, the Zoning Ordinance must be amended.  Accordingly, staff recommends that Council adopt an Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance in order to ensure that the service that began on a trial basis is permitted to continue and provide enhanced emergency service to the area.



The Open Space Zoning District

The purpose of the OS District is to preserve land throughout the City to provide sufficient park space for the community.  In addition to the primary Parks and Recreational Facilities allowed in the OS District, limited uses are allowed, which generally support the open space with public purposes such as cultural facilities, community gardens or assembly, smaller food service uses, bikeshare and farmers’ markets.  Public safety facilities, which may require large footprints, are not allowed in the Open Space Zoning District.


Santa Monica beach is the largest Open Space zone in the City.  The entire stretch of sandy area within City limits, west of Ocean Front Walk and the bike path (also known as the California Coastal Trail or Marvin Braude Bike Trail) is zoned as Open Space. Additionally, the properties on the west side of Palisades Beach Road that are controlled by the City and are part of the State Beach, including parking lots and beach concessions, are zoned as Open Space.  Open Space zoning is interspersed with other properties north of the Pier zoned as Oceanfront (OF) or Medium Density Residential (R2).  Single and multi-unit dwelling units and beach clubs occupy these properties.


Emergency Service for Santa Monica’s North Beach

Santa Monica beach is visited by millions of people annually.  The vast majority utilize the areas near the Pier and south beach, but the northern segment of the beach is also regularly used. In emergency situations, beaches south of the Pier and the McClure Tunnel are accessible via Ocean Avenue, Ocean Way and Barnard Way using parking lots by which emergency personnel can reach their destination relatively easily from existing inland stations.  There is also a police substation located on the Pier and Los Angeles County lifeguard headquarters just south of the Pier.


In contrast, north of the McClure tunnel, the beach is separated from the road network by Palisades Beach Road (PCH).  Traffic flow on Palisades Beach Road is often slow and blocked by those accessing and leaving the beach, as well as the through-traffic connecting with the I-10.  The traffic congestion hinders responses to emergency situations on the beach or at adjacent properties. In addition, the terrain that must be traversed in the wide beach areas requires specialized vehicles rather than the typical fire engines deployed in response to emergency calls. SMFD collected data that showed that response times in the north beach area were well below the city’s average. 


Although the Zoning Ordinance did not contemplate that Public Safety Facilities could be compatible with the purpose of the Open Space District, there are circumstances that make the north beach area exceptional such that allowing the use is appropriate.  First, the beach area is exceptionally large in comparison with other land designated as Open Space in the city.  Secondly, other parks in the city can be served by fire stations located on nearby land appropriately zoned for the useHowever, in the case of the north beach area, there is no nearby land on which the fire station could be located because the adjacent Oceanfront and R2 Residential districts also do not permit public safety facilities.  In this instance, as demonstrated by the improved response times during the fire station pilot, the public safety facility supports the Parks and Recreational use without significantly diminishing its use.


Recommended Standards

Staff reviewed the considerations and procedures by which permitting a fire station or other public safety facility would be appropriate in the Open Space Zoning District and recommends that the use be permitted by right (“P”), in compliance with specific standards for compatibility.  The standards would limit the use to one geographical area of the City, only when necessity is determined, with limitations on size, location on existing paved area (not sandy beach area), and subject to approval of a circulation and access plan.  In the case of a temporary facility, such as the one set up for the pilot project that utilized an existing structure, the draft ordinance requires a Zoning Conformance review.  The Zoning Conformance would replace the requirement for a Minor Use Permit for temporary uses that exceed 45 consecutive days (SMMC 9.44.060). 


The following requirements are included in the draft Emergency Ordinance (Attachment A):

A.     Determination of Necessity: Public safety facilities may only be permitted in the OS Zoning District on properties located in the area west of Palisades Beach Road and north of the Santa Monica Pier.  In addition, the use of an OS property for this purpose shall only be permitted if siting the facility in the proposed location would provide public safety service in an area that has been determined to be underserved by the City’s Police Chief or Fire Chief.

B.     Maximum Site area: The site of a public safety facility shall not exceed 15,000 square feet, to include all land area used for buildings, vehicle and equipment storage, parking and other accessory uses.

C.    Maximum Height: Public Safety facilities in the OS District shall not exceed one story.  The facility may occupy an existing one-story structure.  New construction and additions shall not exceed 20 feet in height.

D.    No intrusion into sandy beach or public paths.  Public safety facilities may be located in an area that is currently paved or landscaped but may not occupy any part of the existing sandy beach area.  The facility may not intrude into the California Coastal Trail (CCT, also known as the Marvin Braude Bike Trail) or cause any disruption of access to the CCT. 

E.     Locating a facility on a public parking lot. The facility may be located in an area currently used for public parking, resulting in an overall reduced number of parking spaces, provided that a parking study is submitted that demonstrates to the satisfaction of the Director of Planning and Community Development that the remaining public parking supply is sufficient to meet beach visitors’ parking demand and the design of the remaining parking area provides sufficient vehicle circulation.

F.     Circulation and access.  The proposed facility shall be designed and developed to ensure safe circulation for all vehicles used at the facility, for both regular access and emergency deployment, and those on adjacent roadways.  The facility shall operate according to a circulation and access plan approved by the Director.

G.    Temporary Facilities. Prior to initiation of use, a temporary public safety facility shall require a Zoning Conformance Review, pursuant to SMMC Chapter 9.38.020.F to confirm compliance with the requirements of this ordinance.


Environmental Analysis

The proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance are not subject to the provisions of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) pursuant to Section 21065, which defines a CEQA “project” as “an activity which may cause either a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment” that is directly undertaken, supported, or authorized by a public agency. Based on the evidence in the record, it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the proposed changes to the OS permitted land uses and specific use standards may have a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect significant effect on the environment. The recommended modifications to the Zoning Ordinance would not result in a direct physical change in the environment, or a reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment. Therefore, no further environmental review under CEQA is required.


Financial Impacts and Budget Actions

There is no immediate financial impact or budget action necessary as a result of recommended action.  The costs for permanent station options will be addressed in the capital and operating budget processes.


Next Steps

If the Council adopts the proposed emergency interim zoning ordinance, it will become effective immediately for 60 days, during which time staff will return to Council to extend its provisions.