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In Seal Beach, it's charm vs. change

Measure Z pits those wanting to preserve city's throwback look against those for development.

October 21, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Rosenblatt is a Times staff writer.

Seal Beach is small, and proud of it.

The city's beginnings were modest -- an idyllic backdrop for silent films and a destination for thousands of Los Angeles pleasure-seekers riding the Red Car to the seaside amusement park.

The roller coaster is long gone, but Seal Beach has steadfastly clung to its old-time character. There's hardly a chain store to be found on Main Street, where parking's still free.

So when a few folks started tearing down aging beach cottages in favor of modern, three-story homes that overshadowed squatter neighbors, people grumbled.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Measure Z: A story in Tuesday's California section about Measure Z, a ballot initiative in Seal Beach that would limit homes in the Old Town section of the city to two stories, said the three-story advocacy group Save Our Seal Beach gathered the signatures that placed the issue on the ballot. The Seal Beach City Council put Measure Z on the ballot.

What, some wondered, was happening to their Norman Rockwell village?

The fight over three-story homes in Seal Beach's waterfront Old Town has simmered for three years, pitting angry locals against one another and spilling into hostile confrontations at City Hall. On one side of Measure Z are the people who want to preserve the throwback look of Old Town; on the other are those who argue for property rights and progress in the form of development.

With the city's laid-back beach atmosphere and good schools, competition for homes in Seal Beach is intense. Buyers pay big prices for small houses on small lots -- so building up makes financial sense. Often, a third story can suddenly give a home a sea view.

"This was always a great Libertarian, leave-me-alone, eclectic little town of working people, of artists and musicians," said Mary Lewis, a political consultant active in the group fighting to allow three stories. "It's just turning into the little town of no."

Come election day, Seal Beach voters will attempt to settle that classic Southern California conundrum: change versus charm.

The debate is evident on 16th Street, where modest pastel-colored homes are hugged by more expansive residences reminiscent of Newport Beach.

Jim and Joan Wolfelt lament the evolution of their block. The single-story bungalow next door was torn down; three stories are rising in its place. Gone is the patch of sky out the window, the patch of sun perfect for reading: "All I can see right now is lumber," said Joan Wolfelt, a retired travel agency owner who's lived there for 26 years.

"It's just different," she said of the street where people used to chat over fences. Taller residences, Wolfelt said, seem "like a big thumb sticking out." She and her husband even held an open house to show what living in the shadow of a larger home is like.

Three-story advocates call such attitudes parochial.

"What happened to the American dream -- you can have what you pay for and what you want to build?" said Jim Klisanin, 74, a longtime resident and real estate broker who owns multiple properties in town.

"This is a reverse-growth agenda and it is economically harming the town," said Lewis, who has worked for Ronald Reagan and Alan Keyes.

Unlike most beach cities across the region, Seal Beach's population of nearly 26,000 is smaller than the 27,200 residents it had in 1974, according to the state Department of Finance; Lewis blames the shrinkage on onerous zoning. And the city is graying rapidly: With Leisure World within its boundaries, one in three residents are retirement age or older.

Measure Z would cap the height of roughly a third of Old Town homes -- those on larger lots of 37.5 feet or more -- at 25 feet, 10 feet less than the current maximum.

That limit, say supporters of the initiative, is vital to keeping Seal Beach the way nearly everyone in town seems to describe it: quaint.

Mushrooming mansions ruin the ambience, said Jack Ross, 60, an investment broker who lives in a two-story Old Town home. He and a gaggle of buddies, of varying views on Measure Z, gathered on a recent morning for their regular Main Street coffee klatch. "It's the same thing that goes on everywhere in the American society today: bigger, more."

"When you have a three-story house next to a one-story house, the scale is just jarring," said Mike Buhbe, a longtime resident and two-story advocate. Plus, he said, large homes mean sunlight, sea breezes and privacy are lost.

For a small-town issue, the dispute has generated substantial heat and cash. Those in favor of three stories have raised nearly $60,000 this year, compared with the $13,000 gathered by two-story supporters. Both organizations are regulars at City Council meetings, with rivals snickering and whispering at each other.

The controversy has gotten personal, triggering a recall effort against Mayor Charles Antos, who supports the two-story limit. The conflict, the mayor said, "is really nasty."

He and other council members are familiar with the question of how to develop Old Town's funky, narrow streets. Since 2006, they've twice voted to limit building heights, rescinded the restriction once and convened a roughly 15-month public hearing process to engineer a compromise. Three-story advocate group Save Our Seal Beach gathered the signatures that placed the issue on the ballot.

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