An Eye on Sea-View 'Tear-Downs'


Bettye Hayes stood on the curb outside her home in southwest San Clemente, her hands clasped in front of her to contain the excitement.

"This is my dream!" she said, watching as workers added a second story to her 1940s bungalow. When the work is done, the 69-year-old retired teacher will have twice as much floor space, not to mention an unobscured view of the glistening Pacific Ocean that she's waited 20 years for.

The scene isn't everyone's dream, however.

Wherever you look on the winding, hilly streets of the coastal community's historic district, where the city's legendary developer Ole Hanson envisioned a "Spanish village" in the 1920s, someone is tearing down a small cottage to build a home two or three times the size--or, like Hayes, adding a sizable addition.

In response, the city is considering an ordinance that would more strictly regulate development in the area and perhaps even prohibit the type of "tear-downs" that have become so common.

"If you look at any coastal community, as property values increase it's natural people try to maximize use of their land," said City Manager Mike Parness.

But "sooner or later it starts to change the character of those neighborhoods. You find single-story Ole Hanson-type cottages next door to very large single-family homes. The question is to what extent that should be allowed."

At stake, some say, is the small-town charm that attracted families, retirees and Marine Corps soldiers from Camp Pendleton to San Clemente in the first place.

Other cities, including Beverly Hills to Malibu, have enacted ordinances to restrict or curtail "mansionization" of neighborhoods. But San Clemente's isolated perch at the far south end of Orange County's coast has made it an especially prime target for bigger homes.

"We are the poor man's alternative to Laguna Beach," said Realtor Bob Hunt. "What you might pay $700,000 for in Laguna, perhaps you could get in San Clemente for $500,000 or $550,000."

San Clemente is still marked by modest homes just blocks from the beach--a major contrast to tonier towns like Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and even Huntington Beach to the north.

Many of the palm-lined blocks sandwiched between the coastline and Interstate 5 are Spanish Colonial Revivals from the 1920s and 1930s, usually two- or three-bedroom homes with fruit trees in small backyards. The area was developed around the coastal hills with the streets following the natural contours, creating more ocean views for residents.

On La Rambla Street, Hayes' expanded home is rising on a street that includes small Spanish stucco bungalows as well as larger modern beach homes with decks overlooking the ocean.

The city has been talking about some type of ordinance for several years, and officials said they are still not sure exactly what it would restrict. But they said it's time for the city to address the issue.

"It's a classic battle between private property rights and the ability to do what you wish versus trying to maintain the character of certain communities," Parness said. The question is, "What does the larger structure do to the overall character of the neighborhood?"

Added Jim Holloway, the city's community development director: "In Newport Beach, they're tearing down the 3,000-square-foot homes and putting up 10-12,000-square-foot ones. It's looking toward the future and how do we want to look."

The prospect of restricting building in San Clemente brings mixed feelings from residents.

Some longtime residents have watched their property values skyrocket in the last dozen years and are taking the equity in their homes and building the additions they've dreamed of and can now afford.

"Most people I speak to are resigned to the fact that this is what's happening now and are dealing with it," said Linda Verraster, who lives on Avenida Cordoba.

Michael and Sue Beschen built their 3,000-square-foot home 20 years ago and have seen many more big houses go up since then. They say the building boom has made their neighborhood more attractive.

"I don't think people mind people coming in and fixing up their houses," Beschen said.

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