Commission steps into steeple debate

June Casagrande

The Planning Commission is scheduled to take a final vote on a

proposed Mormon temple and steeple, but chances are that tonight's

vote won't be the end of the discussion.

Planning commissioners could opt to postpone their decision to

request more information or simply to take more time to make up their

minds. If they do give an official yea or nay tonight, there's a good

chance that, either way, the question could be appealed to the City

Council. And it's not impossible the matter could end up in court.

"We'll do the best we can to ferret out all the issues, hear all

the public testimony and make, as a group, what we believe to be a

fair decision," said Steven Kiser, chairman of the Planning

Commission. "Our objective is to consider the potential impacts,

which are largely aesthetic, but also be fair to people who own

property."

Kiser, like many of his colleagues on the commission, said he

would not support the original proposal for a 123-foot 9-inch steeple

on top of the 17,575-square-foot building planned for 2300 Bonita

Canyon Drive.

Staff members have suggested a 100-foot steeple as a compromise.

But that recommendation could be reconsidered in light of the recent

discovery that the existing stake center's steeple is 18 feet shorter

than the 86 feet reported in city documents. The difference is

relevant because church officials say the temple's steeple must be

more prominent than the stake center's to reflect the greater

importance of the building to their religion.

Temples are where the church's holiest activities, including

marriages, must be performed.

Still, some residents say the church's objectives could be

accomplished with just a 75-foot steeple, but church officials take

their direction from the church president in Salt Lake City, whom

they consider to be a prophet of God. Thus, local church officials

have limited power to make compromises.

Residents who oppose the project say this poses a problem for

making such local, community-oriented decisions.

"If the decision maker is in Salt Lake City, what does that mean

for our role as residents of Newport Beach?" said David Wolf, a

homeowner in the Bonita Canyon development who has opposed the

church's original project.

Most opponents emphasize that they are happy to welcome the church

to the area if its presence is not too imposing on their residential

area. The height of the steeple, the hours the building will be

lighted and the amount of traffic it generates top their list of

concerns.

Some also say that there need to be restrictions on the amount of

holiday decorations on the building. They point to temples in Arizona

and other places whose stunning holiday light displays attract

traffic.

"We as a community have always been willing to compromise," Wolf

said, adding that he would accept a steeple slightly higher than the

existing stake center's, perhaps up to 80 feet.

Church planners have made concessions on their $10-million-plus

project, including reducing the hours the building is lighted and

changing its exterior color.

But opponents have said this isn't enough.

And the biggest sticking point, the steeple, remains up in the

air. On Wednesday afternoon, city planners began discussing whether

they should modify their 100-foot steeple height recommendation based

on the surveys of the stake center steeple. As the business day came

to an end, city staff were still uncertain whether they would change

their recommendation prior to tonight's Planning Commission meeting.

* JUNE CASAGRANDE covers Newport Beach and John Wayne Airport.

She may be reached at (949) 574-4232 or by e-mail at

june.casagrande@latimes.com.

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