End of the story for coastal builders?

Times Staff Writer

As a town where cats have lazed on the City Council dais and a kazoo band toots in the annual Christmas parade, Seal Beach has long clung to its turn-back-the-clock vibe. So it came as little surprise when folks in Old Town, a medley of eclectic bungalows west of Pacific Coast Highway, decided there was no bigger threat than homes remodeled to resemble wedding cakes.

Roger West, 82, was among the longtime residents who feared Seal Beach was succumbing to well-heeled newcomers who wanted to top their homes with third stories.

“I resent that I have to spend my life trying to save this town from people who want to exploit it for money,” West said. “How can you say you want a small-town feel with a third story? It’s just greedy.”


But the spat in Seal Beach goes deeper than whether to cap homes with extra floors, touching on how much a neighborhood’s appearance determines its character and whether the city’s growing wealth is cause for alarm. Similar debates over so-called mansionization have cleaved communities elsewhere, leaving folks fuming over burly dwellings that have muscled out modest homes.

Up and down PCH, it was no coincidence that neighborhood tempers flared as median home prices between 2000 and 2005 more than doubled in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Some people grabbed their equity and tacked on enough additions to make their homes look like a Jenga tower. Newcomers snagged land in shorefront towns with hopes of building a house worthy of the swollen price they’d paid.

In response, more than half a dozen coastal cities have adopted building restrictions to preserve their flip-flop charm, including Oceanside, Solana Beach and Rancho Palos Verdes.

San Clemente’s recent ban on second stories in the Shorecliffs neighborhood has resulted in a petition drive, a lawsuit and one supporter’s yard getting trashed with animal parts and human feces. Los Angeles, which includes Venice and Pacific Palisades -- where bulging homes have been popping up for years -- is poised to tackle palatial estates.

No matter where the conversation takes place, the debate often boils down to class tensions. Some are convinced the rich are elbowing out everyone else; others seem certain that the antagonism toward big homes is born of envy. It’s not an easy squabble to quell. Laguna Beach, for example, passed laws in 2002 intended to make new construction mesh with neighborhoods, but proposals for 5,000-square-foot manors at the Pacific’s edge still crop up.

“They don’t want to see it change,” said Jim Klisanin, 72, who runs Baytown Realty in Seal Beach and owns several properties in town. “They don’t want developers coming in and making a few bucks. They want to stop Mr. Nice Guy who happens to be making money and wants to do something with it. I wouldn’t doubt there’s a little jealously there.”

The move toward supersizing existing homes mirrors a broader trend in big homes. Compared with 1981, a greater percentage of new homes boasted two or more stories and four or more bedrooms. The average new home is almost 700 square feet bigger than its predecessor -- the equivalent of a roomy one-bedroom apartment.

In Southern California, the craze coincided with a meteoric real estate market. Wayne Foss, president of Foss Consulting Group, an appraisal company in Fullerton, said, “If you’ve got $3 million tied up in dirt, you’re going to build 4,000 square feet, unless you have more dirt than sense.”

Homes several tax brackets above the typical suburban cookie-cutter tend to boost property values for the entire block. But they have also become a barrier between the haves and the have-a-lot.

“In the neighborhoods where this happens, people rightly live in fear of becoming a one-class community,” said Adrian Fine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Seal Beach, with about 24,000 residents, has matured from the “Coney Island of the Pacific,” a strand best known for its seaside roller coaster.

It’s now a place where Navy broods and retirees mingle on Main Street, which has purposely been kept to two lanes. With a 5,000-acre Naval Weapons Station isolating it from other Orange County beaches, the city remains more homey than its brethren.

The real estate boom made that tough. The asking price for a bare-bones home on a 25-foot-wide lot leaped from about $350,000 to as much as $800,000 in the last five years, real estate agents said. Though the market has cooled in recent months, the median home price in September topped $1.1 million, and some homes on the so-called Gold Coast have sold for five times that much.

Those price tags have attracted residents far wealthier than Peggy Morrison’s parents, a homemaker and a building inspector who snatched up an Old Town bungalow for less than $10,000 when she was a child. Morrison, 58, a retired speech pathologist, has watched houses spring up around her, starving her roses of sun.

“We have Italian Tuscan mansions and our bowling alley houses that are long and tall, and I guess every man’s castle is his own design,” she said. “Some are goofy and pretentious for what they are. I see this as just a little beach town.”

The city’s median household income is about $42,000, though it’s dragged down by giant retirement village Leisure World; that number in some areas soars to more than $102,000.

West, a retired electronics salesman, said that had he fallen for Seal Beach today, he couldn’t afford a vacant lot. He and his wife moved to the city in the 1960s after struggling to convince a bank that the town wouldn’t go bust.

To their chagrin, homes began sprouting to three stories, which the city allowed only on the back half of larger plots. West, whose sea foam-colored duplex would vex many a homeowners association, found this just plain pretentious.

This year, when a developer asked to erect twin condominiums with third floors, the resistance from West and others set off a spate of soul-searching. West told officials that people who needed third stories should move to Huntington Beach or Newport Beach. That was meant as an insult.

John Scharler was dumbfounded. A few years back, having retired from running a janitorial business, he moved to the beach town and accumulated four side-by-side lots. On the first two lots, he tore down a duplex and built two homes: one for him and another to sell. The second two lots, now packed with rental units, he has pinpointed for his dream home -- with a patio, lawn and three stories.

Scharler, 68, had overheard neighbors fussing about home heights, so he scoured the block for high-rise homes. He struggled to find them, ducking into alleyways to check how high structures stretched.

“There are houses from sidewalk to alley, and these people are raising Cain about building three stories. We’ve built boxes that are two stories. It’s really a cookie-cutter town,” Scharler said. “If you buy a piece of land and build a house and sell it, it becomes a dirty thing. It’s like no one’s allowed to make any money.”

Inundated with phone calls and postcards, a divided City Council recently decided to forbid third-floor construction in Old Town beginning in the spring. Some proponents of building bigger houses who were at the meeting groaned when the vote was announced. They have submitted almost 3,600 signatures to place the matter on the ballot.

Opponents of third stories “have visions of people waiting out there with bulldozers to tear down their houses,” said Seal Beach Mayor John Larson, who dismissed the notion that home heights are integral to the town’s appeal. “I suspect that when their kids inherit the house and realize they can get another million bucks out of it, they’ll see things differently.”


Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.



Houses expanding up and out

Cities along Southern California’s coast grappling with how to rein in home sizes have proposed height limits and reduced floor-area ratios in waterfront areas--though rarely without controversy. When Seal Beach banned third-story construction in Old Town, shown below, opponents began gathering signatures to let voters make the final decision.


City: Oceanside

Population: 166,000

Median household income: $46,301

Median home price: $455,000

Restrictions: Last year, the city capped home heights at 27 feet in three-block area along Coast Highway, where some homes had shot up to 35 feet. Officials are looking into residential design guidelines that would address the bulk and scale of homes west of Interstate 5.


City: Rancho Palos Verdes

Population: 42,000

Median household income: $95,503

Median home price: $1,150,000

Restrictions: Officials in 2003 toughened their review process, comparing most building proposals to the 20 closest homes’ architecture, square footage, lot coverage and mass before approving them. Neighbors within 500 feet are notified of building plans.


City: San Clemente

Population: 60,000

Median household income: $63,507

Median home price: $940,000

Restrictions: Homes in the Shorecliffs neighborhood would be subject to guidelines that would shrink maximum home heights from 25 feet to 16 feet. Houses could also edge closer to streets and other property lines and cover more of their lots. The proposal, approved this summer, is in limbo due to a legal battle.


City: Solana Beach

Population: 12,700

Median household income: $71,774

Median home price: $838,000

Restrictions: The City Council this summer reduced floor-area ratios for new homes west of Interstate 5. Opponents have gathered enough signatures to force the council to repeal the ordinance or place it before voters.


NOTE: Median household income is based on the 2000 census; median home prices are from DataQuick statistics for September.


Sources: Cities listed, DataQuick. Graphics reporting by Ashley Powers