LONG BEACH — What began 18 months ago as a benign effort to close loopholes that allowed dwelling heights to soar in three Alamitos Bay communities has grown into a full-blown political struggle which has sharply divided both the communities involved and the City Council--and become a central issue in a bitter District 3 election campaign.
Indeed, at times during the last six months of heated debate at three government levels, politics has seemed to overwhelm the real issue: whether three-story homes should be allowed in the traditionally low-rise beach communities.
Two council members now say, in fact, that they favor a direct referendum of homeowners on the issue, scheduled for a May 27 public hearing, because council politics has so interfered with dispassionate discussion and possible compromise.
At its most basic community level, the dispute over dwelling heights is one of dollars and cents versus life style. If three-story structures are allowed, property values will undoubtedly rise. But the three-story dwellings would also change the cottage character of the Belmont Shore and Naples Island communities, which are made up predominately of one- and two-story homes.
Speculation Called Factor
"In general, the difference of opinion is largely between the older residents, who have a lot more attachment to the area and are not anxious to sell and move on, and the people who have bought in more recently, mostly the younger families. Some of the newer people are more interested in buying for speculative value," said Robert Paternoster, director of the city Planning Department.
A city survey and resident petitions indicate that homeowners in the Belmont Shore and Naples areas, where most disagreement is centered, are split down the middle, Paternoster said. Proponents of a three-story, 30-foot height limit, say a majority is on their side, but backers of a two-story, 24-foot standard strongly disagree. (Heights in both standards are measured to the mid-point of sloped roofs, which means that actual heights could be about four feet higher.)
There has been much less controversy about height limits for the Peninsula, the third affected bay community. Many Peninsula homes are already three stories high and two rival height proposals vary by only three feet--32 feet to a roof's mid-point compared to 35 feet. Each limit would allow three-story construction.
The merit of each side's arguments, however, may have now been lost in the complex political maneuvering of this election year, in council grudge votes, and most recently in vote swapping, some council members said.
That the issue is still before the City Council reflects its tortuous path to resolution. After two lengthy November hearings, the Planning Commission recommended a two-story, 24-foot limit for Belmont Shore and Naples, the 32-foot limit for the Peninsula and the plugging of loopholes that had allowed dwellings of more than 40 feet.
The City Council first voted on the height limits on Dec. 3 after seven hours of resident testimony. On a 5-3 vote, it sent to the state Coastal Commission a proposed amendment to the Local Coastal Plan that backed three-story, 30-foot structures (35 feet for the Peninsula) and the loophole closures.
But in March the Coastal Commission, at the urging of District 3 Councilwoman Jan Hall, backed a two-story limit and returned the entire measure--including the loophole provisions all sides agreed were good--to the council. On April 1, the council voted with the same 5-3 alignment to try a new tack to gain state approval of the three-story, 30-foot limit. And on April 22, after more resident testimony, it scheduled the May 27 hearing.
What has happened politically during this lengthy process has convinced Councilman Wallace Edgerton, a critic of Hall and an outspoken participant in the divisive debate, that the issue ought to be taken out of the council's hands and decided directly by affected property owners, he said.
'Out of Hand'
Though vague on precisely how that would work, Edgerton said the voting would be administered by the city clerk at a central location over a period of days.
"This has just gotten out of hand," Edgerton said. "It's become too politically complicated, and I think it's wrong at this point to try to put votes together (on the council) and jam it down anybody's throat. There is so much hostility now that I think it's hurting the community terribly. A direct vote of the people out there is the only way to handle it fairly and satisfy everyone."
But Edgerton, who has voted with the 5-3 majority, said he would not be in town May 27 to make his proposal to the council. He is the newly elected president of the Pacific Asian Conference of Municipalities, a trade group, and said he must attend a meeting in Australia on that day.