LONG BEACH — The state Coastal Commission has revived a bitter debate among City Council members and residents of the affluent Belmont Shore and Naples sections of this city by opposing construction of three-story dwellings in those neighborhoods.
In a 9-2 vote Thursday, the Coastal Commission sided with Councilwoman Jan Hall, who argued that the majority of her constituents favor a two-story limit.
The commission's action returns to the City Council a proposed amendment to the local coastal plan that a divided council approved, 5 to 4, in December after a lengthy and heated public hearing.
The Coastal Commission members said they could have approved 24 of 25 provisions of the amendment, aimed at patching loopholes in the current coastal plan. The entire amendment was returned to the council, however, because the commission would not endorse height limits allowing three-story structures.
Witnesses Favored 2 Stories
The commission apparently favored the two-story limit because most of the Long Beach witnesses who appeared before it said they backed that restriction, said city Planning Director Robert Paternoster.
That decision leaves the City Council with three options, said Paternoster.
It can agree with the Coastal Commission and the city Planning Commission and allow only two-story construction in Belmont Shore and Naples. It can do nothing, which would leave in place the current coastal plan whose loopholes have allowed construction of several structures higher than the three-story limit.
Or it can resubmit its proposed coastal plan amendment without addressing the height issue, which would close loopholes while leaving in place the height limit adopted as part of the existing local coastal plan.
"This is absolutely a victory for the people who live in Belmont Shore and Naples," Hall said after the Coastal Commission meeting. She maintained that her surveys indicate that 60% of residents there favor dwellings of no more than two stories.
Councilman Wallace Edgerton said, however, that the commission vote simply perpetuates a dispute that has split Belmont Shore and Naples.
Increase Property Values
At hearings in November and December, many residents argued that a third story would increase their property values, while others insisted that the taller homes block sunlight and invade their privacy.
Hall said she plans to resubmit the issue to the City Council.
Edgerton, however, said Hall will have to do a better job of lobbying her colleagues if she is to prevail. He said Hall probably could have had her way at the December hearing had she taken the time to personally tell other council members her views.
"She's 100% at fault for this mess," said Edgerton. "She can go out and point her finger at the majority of the council and make us the heavies, but it's her fault."
Edgerton said council members often bow to the wishes of a colleague on issues that involve only that colleague's district, and he was prepared to do that in this case.
"But she never talked to us," he said.
Decision Based on Testimony
As a result, the council majority made its decision primarily on public testimony, which favored three-story dwellings at least 2 to 1, he said. Hall, he said, "didn't get her people to the hearing."
The height-limit issue was a typical example of how Hall operates as a council member, he said.
"She doesn't talk to the (city) staff or the majority of the council," said Edgerton. "If people knew how she operates at City Hall, they'd fire her. . . . As a legislator, she's incompetent."
Hall said Edgerton's comments should be considered in light of his support for an opponent in her current City Council campaign.
Hall said that she is philosophically opposed to the kind of lobbying Edgerton suggests. She said she provided the council with full documentation on the issue so they could base their decisions on the information and the public testimony.
"The public hearing process is open and if decisions are made prior to the public hearing, then we are really ignoring an important part of what democracy is all about," she said. "If that's what my colleague is criticizing me for, then not only am I offended but I think all the people of this city should be offended."
Both Hall and Edgerton agreed with Paternoster that the height-limit issue should revolve solely around what the affected community wants.
Community Termed Divided
"This is not a technical issue," said Paternoster. "There's no right answer here. It is quite correct to do what the community wants, whatever it is. But most surveys show it's a strongly divided community . . . pretty close to 50-50."
The original local coastal plan was approved without much comment in 1980 because local residents did not know then how onerous the taller buildings would be, said Hall.
Once some of the taller structures were built, protest began to mount, she said. Finally, after a yearlong investigation by a Hall-appointed committee, its recommendations were forwarded to the Planning Commission last fall.
Meanwhile Belmont Shore homeowners groups were conducting rival petition drives. One presented the Planning Commission with 1,000 signatures of people who wanted three-story structures, another produced a document with 850 signatures of residents backing a two-story limit.