LONG BEACH — The City Council, apparently needing next week's elections to break its stalemate, could not muster a five-vote majority Tuesday and left unresolved a dispute over dwelling heights that for months has pitted neighbor against neighbor in three Alamitos Bay communities.
With one seat vacant and Councilman Wallace Edgerton out of the country, the council was unable to heed the pleas of a standing-room-only audience of about 300 homeowners to finally decide the matter.
"We all have the same concerns," Belmont Shore homeowner Jerry Borisy told the council. "What we'd like to see is a reasonable compromise . . . so we can bring our community together."
Another homeowner, Lon Schleining, pleaded with the council to "diffuse this matter that's going on between neighbors. . . . There've been so many rounds of this I'm feeling black and blue."
The issue--whether three-story homes should be allowed in traditionally low-rise beach communities--has now been debated seven times at three government levels since November.
30-Foot Limit in Effect
The council, which has considered it four times, did agree Tuesday to extend to Sept. 10 a building moratorium that plugs loopholes that have allowed dwelling heights to reach 42 feet, about four stories. The moratorium leaves in effect for now height limits of 30 feet in Belmont Shore and Naples and 35 feet on the Peninsula. All allow three-story construction. Heights are measured to the midpoint of sloped roofs or the top of flat roofs.
"We're very definitely going to have to wait for the election of new council members to decide this," said Mayor Ernie Kell after a two-hour hearing.
"The council is as divided as the community," said Kell. "This is not something that we enjoy."
Council elections are Tuesday, but the three winners will not be sworn in until July 22, and a 4-4 deadlock is still a possibility. A special election has been set for Aug. 26 to fill the 6th District seat James H. Wilson vacated two weeks ago after being sentenced to prison for mail fraud.
The height issue seems predominant in the 3rd District race, where Councilwoman Jan Hall, who backs a two-story, 24-foot limit, opposes Jim Serles, who favors a 30-foot standard that allows three-story homes. Serles' campaign is supported by Kell and Edgerton.
Lower Limit Said Favored
Hall, who has consistently maintained that a majority of her constituents favor the lower limit because it will maintain the cottage character of Naples and Belmont Shore, said some of her council colleagues may only listen to the voters. (There has been much less controversy on the Peninsula because the rival proposals would both allow three-story construction.)
"Hopefully they will look at the (pro-Hall) vote in these neighborhoods and give the people a fair shot," Hall said.
Hall had hoped Councilwoman Eunice Sato would be the fifth and deciding vote for a two-story limit. But Sato, saying she had been lobbied "very strongly" from both sides, opted for a proposal to allow 30-foot construction only if a third on-site parking space was included. That would reduce incentive to build the taller structures and help solve an existing parking problem if they were built, she said.
Hall told Sato that she was amazed at her position. Responding specifically to Sato's statement that the difference in height limits was only two feet, 28 feet compared to 30, Hall said: "I expect at least at a minimum for you to listen to the people and understand the issue."
Councilman Marc Wilder, who joined Sato and Kell on the minority end of a pair of 4-3 votes, chastised Hall for "attacking" Sato.
"None of us are obviously enjoying this. We're struggling to find a compromise," said Wilder. Then, turning to Hall, he said, "I don't think you have all the answers."
Hall Claims to Be Target
Hall said politics had entered into the debate. She has said that Kell and Edgerton, as Serles supporters, have opposed her on the issue to try to make her appear to be an ineffective legislator. They have denied the charge.
"To imply that this is strictly politically motivated is misleading at best. It's inaccurate at worst," said Kell during heated debate. He later said that Hall was the one who was playing the issue for political gain.
Testimony from homeowners made it clear that several felt the issue had become, in the words of one, "a political football."
With yellow 3-by-5-inch tags saying "two story" attached to their shirts and blouses, proponents of a 24-foot standard repeated arguments that have now been presented twice to the Planning Commission, four times to the City Council and once to the state Coastal Commission.
"We're here to protect our homes," said Jim Eastman of Belmont Shore.