As San Clemente Council Fights Planners, Builders Battle Red Tape

Times Staff Writer

In most cities, developer Suzanne Abbott says, the biggest hurdle to any project is the planning commission, whose recommendation the city council usually rubber-stamps.

San Clemente is not like most cities.

While the commission recommended approval of her seafront condominium project at 38 units, the council overturned it as too grandiose and sent Abbott scurrying back to the drawing board with a scaled-back proposal for 30 units.

A months-long feud between the San Clemente City Council and the Planning Commission it appointed has ensnared Abbott and other developers in a labyrinth of red tape, resulting in costly delays that have pushed back some projects as long as six months.


“I pity the poor applicants,” said Councilman Robert D. Limberg. “They don’t know whether they’re coming or going.”

Limberg added that the city planning staff, already overburdened with implementation of a local slow-growth initiative passed June 7, is also strapped with having to prepare conflicting reports for the council and commission. The staff reports to both.

Against Each Other

These kinds of dilemmas were cited in a joint City Council-Planning Commission meeting Tuesday as examples of why the two governing bodies need to start working with each other instead of against each other, as has been the case almost all this year. The two sides agreed that their problem stemmed from lack of communication and promised to work for better harmony, perhaps by attending a retreat.


The meeting was requested by commission Chairman Hal Joseph after the council overturned half a dozen commission recommendations this year. Tensions boiled so high a couple of months ago that the council told the commissioners in a meeting to either accept their advisory role or consider stepping down “for the good of all.” Commissioners, in turn, told the council that they were frustrated at becoming “irrelevant” in the political process.

The council’s denials of commission recommendations have followed a pattern: Each time, the commission wanted more leniency towards development; the council wanted more restrictions.

Some recent commission recommendations that have been overturned include:

- Approval of the 1,330-unit Marblehead residential project in San Clemente’s rugged backcountry. The council reversed the commission’s approval of the project application on the basis of a city staff report that concluded that the development would have “significant visual impacts.” The project has not been resubmitted.


- The posting of 47 wooden signs by developers advertising developments throughout the city. The council wound up approving only 17.

- Approval for an unemployed resident, Rich Handy, to split his quarter-acre vacant lot in half and sell one side for development. The council rejected the commission recommendation, even though Handy said he needed the money from the sale.

The feud between the two governing bodies is rooted in a slow-growth movement that has taken hold in San Clemente over the last two years, according to City Planner Bob Goldin.

In 1986, voters passed an initiative that limited growth to 500 units per year. In June, voters passed a slow-growth initiative that attaches complex conditions for development. Mayor Thomas Lorch and Mayor Pro Tem Brian J. Rice, elected to the council two years ago, are staunch slow-growth advocates.


The problem, said Goldin, is that San Clemente’s building codes have not yet been revised to reflect the new atmosphere of growth. As a result, he said, the Planning Commission is following a code that calls for more development than the slow-growth-oriented council wants.

He cited the Arenoso Villas project. The 1.6 acres in question was originally zoned for 57 residential units. Since the zone designation has not been changed, Abbott, whose A & W Marketing Co. is partners with Town & Country Developers on the project, said her development company originally went to the city with a request to build 52 units before ending up with 30 units.

But the City Council opposed such a concentrated development on philosophical grounds. As Councilman Limberg said in Tuesday’s meeting, the council “has a strong desire to have an elevated quality (of development) in the city.”

Limberg added that the quality is enhanced by not having as many buildings per development. Councilwoman Holly Veale said, “There is a community feeling that we don’t want to look like Irvine.”


Developers such as Abbott, meanwhile, just hope the city can get its act together soon. The wrangling over Arenoso Villas has forced her company to redesign the project six times, at a cost each time of about $7,000. The project, introduced to the city almost a year ago, is running six months behind schedule because of all the delays, she said.

“We’ve never been so hung up in a city as San Clemente,” said Abbott, whose project is scheduled to come up for review again at tonight’s regularly scheduled council meeting.