Avalon Council Rejects Emergency Construction Ban

Times Staff Writer

Before an overflow crowd at City Hall Tuesday, the Avalon City Council unanimously rejected a proposed emergency moratorium that would have prohibited any new development in the city.

The council voted after hearing from residents who, at an earlier meeting, had submitted petitions with more than 600 signatures of those opposed to high-density units and buildings as high as 40 feet on the hillsides overlooking the Santa Catalina Island town.

Several council members said a moratorium is not necessary because the council already decided in July to review the height limitation issue at a joint study session with the Planning Commission on Tuesday.

"I think it gives both bodies time to try to come up with some answers to some bothering questions," Councilman John Phillips said.

Phillips also questioned the need for urgency. "Some people may consider their view or their investment at stake, but I don't think that would warrant an emergency moratorium," he said.

Councilman Paul Puma, who moved to introduce the ordinance at the Aug. 15 council meeting, voted against it Tuesday because of the scheduled study session.

"The statute that was prepared was more restrictive than we felt was necessary in view of the fact that we're having a meeting next Tuesday with the Planning Commission and making some decisions as to height limitation and lot-to-square-footage density ratios," Puma said.

A six-year building moratorium that had been in effect because of Avalon's water shortage was lifted earlier this year when a planned hotel project fell through, making water available for other projects. The City Council voted 4 to 1 to allow 26 new developments and expansions of existing buildings.

Under the city's building code, structures on hillsides greater than a 15-degree angle must be no more than 40 feet high at the lower end of the slope and no more than 14 feet high at the upper end, City Manager Chuck Prince said. Or, a hillside building could maintain a uniform height of 28 feet along the slope, the same height limitation for non-hillside buildings in Avalon.

Some residents, however, maintain that the 40-foot limitation is too high and that some planned hillside developments, if built to that maximum, would be out of scale with the smaller, older homes surrounding them.

Helen Connolly, an Avalon resident for 14 years who lives next to a six-unit condominium project on Whittley Avenue, helped spearhead the petition drive. The petition urged the council to lower the height limitation of hillside buildings to a maximum of 28 feet on lower slopes, while maintaining a 14-foot height restriction on upper slopes.

"People are against this massive building that's going on in Avalon," Connolly said. "It impacts the entire community because it affects height, parking, sewage, light, air, sun and views."

Connolly has an appeal before the City Council of the Planning Commission's approval of the Whittley Avenue project, which is proposed for a vacant lot next to her home. Connolly is appealing the addition of two bonus units, which by city ordinance can be allowed for use as low- to moderate-income housing. Under city guidelines, the developer agreed to rent the two bonus units as year-round housing for 15 years.

Another Project Appealed

A separate appeal of a planned four-unit condominium development on Metropole Avenue has been filed by Lolo Saldana, a 35-year Metropole Avenue resident who also gathered petition signatures of residents opposed to the present hillside limitations.

Saldana's son, Gilbert, a former mayor of Avalon, has acted as a spokesman for his father and other Metropole Avenue residents opposed to the size of the planned development.

Gilbert Saldana was on the Avalon City Council in 1981 when the height limits were passed. Although he voted for the 40-foot limit then, he said, it has since proven too overwhelming for Avalon's small-scale homes and businesses.

"This situation has never really been put to the test because six of the eight years the ordinance has been in effect, the city has had a building moratorium," Saldana said. "A handful of projects have gotten through within those height limits, and it's because of those projects people are seeing what 40 feet is and saying it's time to change it."

40 Feet High

The project next to his father's home, for example, will be about 40 feet high on one side.

"This project will literally be towering over at least five homes in the immediate vicinity," he said. "We respect their right to build. . . . If they build there, we just want them to build something more in tune with the neighborhood."

City Manager Prince said the issue has been an increasing concern for city officials for the past year because of a housing shortage for year-round Avalon residents.

"A good portion of hillside lots are zoned high density," Prince said. "Most of the hillside lots are surrounded by older homes and haven't been built on because they were less desirable lots." Because land has become so scarce in Avalon, he said, "all property is desirable."

Both of the planned developments at issue are being built by Whittley Properties, whose general partner Robert Lynam, is a general contractor and longtime island resident. Lynam was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

However, Jay Feinberg, Lynam's partner in the Metropole Avenue development, called the issue "a neighborhood dispute."

'Showed Great Wisdom'

"My feeling is they're trying to blow this thing out of proportion with a city ban because that's the only way they could approach it," Feinberg said. "I think the council showed great wisdom in not penalizing the whole town over these two projects."

Feinberg said the projects were approved by the Planning Commission after the developers met numerous requests for design changes, including a height reduction from 14 feet to six feet on one side of the Whittley Avenue project.

Moreover, Feinberg said, both projects meet height limitations that were adopted by the city in 1981 and have never been an issue until now.

"These protests are a little late," Feinberg said. "People had eight years to protest the code, and then all of a sudden it comes out of nowhere."

At the Aug. 15 council meeting, Mayor Hugh T. (Bud) Smith asked Connolly, Gilbert Saldana and the Whittley Properties developers to try to reach a compromise on the size of the developments before the Oct. 3 council meeting.

The group has met once, and a second meeting is scheduled for Saturday, said Smith, who with Councilman Hal Host has acted as a mediator at the meetings.

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