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Seal Beach's building storm

November 24, 2006|Edward Humes | EDWARD HUMES is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, most recently of "Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream."

For the last few weeks here in Seal Beach, you couldn't go to the supermarket for a carton of milk without being body-tackled by gaggles of angry citizens intent on defending their inalienable right to construct towering Tuscan villas on beach-shack-sized lots.

They'd wave clipboards in your face and flog a petition to override the City Council, which last month imposed a ban on 35-foot-tall, three-story McMansions in the town's signature Old Town neighborhood.

Apparently the prospect of being forced by government fiat to settle for only five bedrooms and four baths nestled inside mere 25-foot-tall, two-story behemoths (where half-pint bungalows once stood with actual yards) was just too much to bear for some property owners. Others, however, fearing they'll wake up one day in the Titanic-sized shadow of new mansions that block their ocean breezes, take a dim view of such construction and applaud the ban. This has led to some tense exchanges about freedom, democracy and square-footage outside the local Pavilions.

And so one of Southern California's last authentic beach towns -- a place mandatorily described in news accounts as "quaint," where there are no parking meters on Main Street, and where Genie at the Old Town post office magically appears with her regulars' packages without being asked -- has a war on its hands. Call it the War on Terra, as in terra firma, the solid land on which we live -- or to be more precise, the land on which we remodel.

This is an argument dating back nearly a century, when Seal Beach was the first Orange County beach community served by the Red Car Line and featured a renowned pier, dance pavilion, roller-coaster and 24-hour casino located next to its own airstrip. All that glitz and gambling is long-gone now, replaced by Seal Beach's post-Prohibition incarnation as a family-friendly community, but the argument is eternal: the desire for bigger and better and doing as you please with your property versus the longing of citizens to preserve their community's precious history and character (as long as they get their own renovations approved first, of course).

Similar bans and building limits are being debated and litigated on the coast, from San Clemente to Rancho Palos Verdes and beyond. Anyone familiar with the transformation of Huntington Beach or the unsullied gem that was Crystal Cove (I just can't drive down that once-magical, now mansionized stretch of Pacific Coast Highway without mourning) can tell you which side is most often victorious in this battle.

Seal Beach is one of the last holdouts in this war, with the city's general plan making repeated and emphatic references to preserving our small-town atmosphere. But it's a strange and twisted war, waged by owners of multimillion-dollar properties who wish to make them worth millions more by building structures capable of inducing a solar eclipse pitted against other owners of multimillion-dollar properties next door and nearby who want their roses to continue to get sun and their property values to continue to bloom.

As with most such small-town conflicts, this one is rife with misinformation. The controversy began this summer when attorney Scott Levitt, the son of Councilman Michael Levitt, sought to build a three-story condominium that spanned two prime lots a block from the beach. When he went before the city planning commission for approval, a number of residents took that occasion to decry the mansionization of Seal Beach and to call for the three-story ban in Old Town, to avoid creating, in Chairwoman Ellery Deaton's words, "a cookie cutter, Truman Show-style town."

Perhaps someone should have thought of this 32 years ago -- which is when the city began allowing similar three-story construction and the even more pernicious practice of allowing mega-homes to be erected that occupy nearly every square inch of Old Town's 25-foot-wide lots. The only reason Levitt needed planning commission approval at all was because he wanted a condo permit; everything else about his project was within regulations, including the height and the number of stories.

Dozens of similar three-story buildings in Old Town have been rubber-stamped over the years with little notice or controversy, but the hearing on the condo permit seems to have finally galvanized the city's attention. Levitt ended up dropping the condo application from his project and called it a duplex instead, then broke ground on exactly the same building.

But by then, neighborhood buzz about a local boy erecting his self-described "dream house" (with rental units attached) had morphed into a tale of rapacious out-of-town developers strangling Seal Beach's quaintness. The fear is now palpable, if belated, that the town might go the way of coastal Huntington Beach, where the view from PCH might best be described as Vista del Condo. Still, better late than never.

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