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Putting limits on height of homes

San Clemente voters to decide if one-story homes in Shorecliffs neighborhood can grow to two stories.

May 31, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Carol Evans remembers watching the sun sink into the ocean from her San Clemente sun room.

"You could see the palm trees, beautiful oranges and golds. . . . It was gorgeous," she said.

Until the neighbors added a second story. Now, most of her ocean vista is obscured by a house. Sometimes, she said, she can glimpse the water through their open doors.

Because Shorecliffs neighborhood guidelines -- rules that in some communities would provide clear-cut, binding building rules -- aren't legally enforceable, there wasn't much the 67-year-old retired school counselor could do.

Residents of Evans' community overlooking the Pacific are pitted against one another this election season, bitterly disputing whether one-story hillside homes can grow to two levels, potentially blocking neighbors' ocean views.

In a few instances, the row has escalated to vandalism. One homeowner reported rotting raccoon parts and human feces spread across his yard.

After years of legal wrangling, voters across the sleepy surf town Tuesday will determine the future of development in the aging, 505-home Shorecliffs community.

If residents pass Measure I, 272 Shorecliffs' homes -- many with sea views -- will be restricted to a maximum height of 16 feet, said City Planner George Buell. The other 233, mostly on the perimeter of the neighborhood, could be as high as 25 feet, the common height limit for single-family residences throughout the city.

Second-story advocates describe the conflict as a fight to preserve property rights. Opponents argue that overbuilding would alter the character of the 1960s-era terraced community. To determine which homes would be subject to the height limit, city officials inspected all the lots and evaluated their views, Buell said.

A "yes" vote on Measure I also would relax some development standards so homeowners could still expand their homes with additions that don't exceed the height limit; 19 of the homes subject to the height limit could potentially grow to more than 16 feet if owners prove that they won't block ocean scenery.

The issue has simmered for years, triggering lawsuits, City Council actions, surveys and petition drives. In July 2006, the council adopted an ordinance limiting more than half of Shorecliffs homes to one story; a month later, opponents of the restriction gathered enough signatures to force a citywide vote.

City officials are split on the future of the neighborhood; the original ordinance imposing height limits was passed on a 3-2 vote.

"To come in and impose a city ordinance on a small number of homes . . . is absolutely ridiculous," said Councilman Jim Dahl. "It's spot zoning. . . . You're zoning away the rights of a property owner to be able to do what he wants with his house."

Opponents of Measure I complain that the ordinance is arbitrary and unfair.

"Everybody should be treated equally, and that's not happening here," said Shorecliffs homeowner Ryan Wilkinson, 31, a banker and surfer who moved there in 2003.

He said that under Measure I, neighbors on all sides of him could build up, while his home would be capped at 16 feet.

Opponents also worry that regulating homes in Shorecliffs, some of which sit on unstable hillsides, could mean more city intervention in other neighborhoods.

"There is no right to a view in California," said Rick Collins, president of a local group fighting the restrictions. "It isn't about us being mean neighbors; it's about families exercising the same rights as every other household in San Clemente."

But backers of the measure, including Paige Foreman, 44, lament the loss of their small-scale community -- most homes are about 1,700 square feet -- as newcomers move in.

"There's a lot of people who paid a premium for their views at the time," said Foreman, whose family lives in the same Shorecliffs home her husband's grandparents once owned.

"A lot of San Clemente is like Mayberry in a way, and people have seen it grow very quickly in a very short period of time and people are getting tired of it," she said. "There's a lot to be said for the character that we all really value."

Other seaside cities have grappled with questions of how to build along the coast. In Laguna Beach and Del Mar, a design review board evaluates proposed construction, places stakes on the property in question to show neighbors the structure's effect and solicits input from those living nearby.

Seal Beach residents are divided over whether to allow three-story lots in the city's Old Town, and the issue probably will go to voters this fall.

One thing both sides seem to want is for the tension in Shorecliffs -- complete with cold shoulders and stolen yard signs -- to subside.

San Clemente Mayor Joe Anderson, who supports the height restrictions and voted for the ordinance, is hopeful about Tuesday's vote: "I see this pretty much as the final action in this long and torturous saga."

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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