Hermosa Beach voters will decide the fate of four ballot propositions Nov. 8, three of which address a long-debated issue: what to do with the city’s only vacant beachfront land.
The fourth proposal would keep several existing taxes in effect.
Propositions X, Y and Z would rezone a .84-acre lot at 15th Street and The Strand, known as the Biltmore site after a hotel that once stood there.
Proposition X would zone the vacant land for residential use; Proposition Y would zone it for commercial use. Proposition Z calls for a 250-room luxury hotel on the site. The proposition that gets the most “yes” votes will take effect, as long as it gets a majority.
Once the voters have decided how to zone the property, the City Council plans to sell the land to the highest bidder to help pay for the purchase of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway right of way, a park-like area that bisects the city.
To help pay the $7.5-million price of the 20-acre right of way, residents voted last November to increase the utility users tax by 4%. As part of the plan, the city was required to do all it can to raise funds so the tax can be retired early. Depending on zoning, the sale of the Biltmore site could pay for 55% to 100% of the cost of the right of way.
The Biltmore site has been a source of debate almost since the Biltmore Hotel was condemned and razed in 1965. Five elections have been held on development proposals since 1972, including a high-rise hotel and a time-share condominium project. All have failed.
The debate continued last week when three City Council members met on the stage of the Hermosa Beach Civic Theater to argue the merits of each proposition. The debate, which will be broadcast several times on the local cable television channel, was mediated by the League of Women Voters and sponsored by the Hermosa Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Councilman Roger Creighton spoke for Proposition X, Mayor Jim Rosenberger spoke for Proposition Y, and Councilman Chuck Sheldon spoke for Proposition Z. All three urged residents to vote so the issue can be resolved. If no proposition gets a majority of “yes” votes, the issue will return to the council.
“If none wins it will be complete exasperation,” Sheldon said.
Proposition X would zone the Biltmore land R-1, single-family residential. This zoning would probably allow eight houses on the site. The measure also would rezone an adjacent city-owned parking lot as commercial property to be sold.
Under X, the Biltmore site is valued at $4.5 million, according to a city appraisal in August, and the parking lot another $3.6 million.
Creighton said that single-family zoning would bring the least amount of congestion and density while providing the city the highest price per square foot.
“I believe Proposition X reflects the sense of community that the Hermosa residents possess,” he said.
“Proposition X prevents massive development. It supports the citywide spirit of low-density, low-rise development.”
Sheldon, like many opponents of Proposition X, said that residential zoning would increase traffic but not provide additional parking or pay the complete cost of the right of way. The hotel project would do both, he said.
“It’s my feeling that Proposition X, with the possible exception of Proposition Y, is the most dense, the most overdevelopment, the highest traffic, the greatest amount of concrete on the property,” he said, assuming that the commercial land adjacent to the site will be built to maximum capacity.
He also pointed out that the California Coastal Commission, which has regulatory authority over developments on the coastal zones, currently zones the Biltmore site a “commercial visitor-serving area.”
Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter M. Douglas has expressed doubt that the commission would approve such a change.
Creighton said he does not believe the Coastal Commission would reject a residential zoning approved by voters.
Proposition Y would zone the Biltmore site as commercial property, which would allow for stores, restaurants, office space or a hotel. The city parking lot would not be affected. Under commercial zoning the land is valued at $3.7 million, according to the city appraisal.
Rosenberger said commercial zoning is consistent with the surrounding area and would provide the city with much-needed revenues in the form of business, sales and possibly bed taxes. He said that any business would be required to abide by setback, landscaping, parking and other requirements imposed by the City Council.
In opposition to Proposition Y, Sheldon said commercial zoning would bring the least amount of sale proceeds. He said it would also mean more congestion and unwanted office buildings and retail stores, without providing open space or parking for visitors and residents. Sheldon said commercial establishments on The Strand make significant profits only during the summer months.
“The last thing we need is more shops,” he said. “What we need is more shoppers.”
Proposition Z is a “specific plan” for a 39-foot-tall hotel on the Biltmore site, the city-owned parking lot and an adjacent, privately owned lot for which the developer has a purchase option. Under this plan the Biltmore site would be valued at $7.3 million, according to the appraisal.
Sheldon said a hotel would almost completely pay for the railroad right of way and provide $750,000 a year in taxes to the city.
He estimated that residential zoning would bring in $78,000 a year in revenues, while commercial use would bring in $50,000 each year.
He also said the specific plan requires a half-acre garden plaza for public use and 100 underground parking spaces.
“This hotel will welcome guests and their money,” Sheldon said.
Creighton said a hotel on the lot could be a financial failure and would add to the density of the area. A 39-foot-tall hotel would be at least four feet taller than any other building on The Strand, he said.
“Hermosa has always been a low-profile, low-density, quaint beachfront community,” Creighton said. “Such as massive development would be a step on the staircase leading up to high-density, commercial developments.”
The other measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, Proposition W, confirms a tax increase on business licenses, transient occupancy and residential developments.
The city imposes an 8% tax on hotel and motel charges and a $3,500 tax on each new residential unit to pay for park and recreation facilities. Business license fees vary with the type of business. These increases were passed by the City Council in 1985 and 1986.
Proposition W was placed on the ballot to satisfy the requirements of Proposition 62, which was adopted in 1986. Proposition 62 requires that all tax measures approved by a City Council after Aug. 1, 1985, be ratified by the voters before Nov. 15, 1988.
But in September, the state appellate court invalidated Proposition 62, calling it “a gross interference with the fiscal responsibility of local governments.”
City Atty. James P. Lough said last month, however, that Proposition W should remain on the ballot in spite of the court ruling. Should the proposition be defeated, he said, “the council would have the right to reimpose” the taxes as long as the appellate court ruling remains in effect.