Is city playing favorites with steeple heights?
Regarding the proposed Mormon temple in Newport Beach:
How does the city of Newport Beach really determine the height of
church/temple steeples? Do planning commissioners and City Council
members and city staff favor one faith over another? Does one church
or temple literally rank above others?
We would all hope not, and of course, all city officials would
emphatically disavow any preference in public policy toward different
faiths. But what do the facts say? The Mormons proposed 124-plus
feet, and after much public outrage they agreed to 100 feet, and then
90 feet in a neighborhood with a 50-foot height limit. Along the way,
residents exposed a major factual mistake in the city staff/Mormon
presentations, that some Mormon leaders admit they knew about but did
not correct during public meetings. City staff continued to support
100 feet and dug in against the local residents who only want new
buildings in their low-rise area to be low-rise (90 feet is a
high-rise in Southern California).
Not widely publicized, the Episcopal church immediately across the
street from the Mormon site received approval for a 75-foot steeple
as part of a new, proposed structure. Word is that the Catholics want
a new 110-foot steeple for a new facility in the East Bluff
neighborhood. Why give the Mormons more than the Episcopal Church,
and what do the Catholics rate? Maybe the Episcopal folks just didn't
ask for enough. Ask and ye shall receive -- or maybe the Mormons made
a more powerful presentation, brought more clout to the public
hearings, had better public relations or just knew how to play the
political game better than some of the other faiths.
Of course, if a city wanted to be fair and to give residents
advance notice on the type of neighborhood they were buying into,
that city would set zoning laws and heights and would stick to them.
It would not sell out residents to regional religious interests,
would not negotiate zoning and height issues and, most importantly,
it would be consistent and make all houses of faith within the city
adhere to a common height.
Here in Newport Beach, city officials have figured out that the
way to concentrate their individual and collective power is to
provide exceptions to the rules as they see fit and the moment moves
them. Add to this the role of the large local landowner. It sells the
homes to the new residents with existing height restrictions in place
on their homes, and other nearby uses such as churches and temples.
It sells land to the church and subsequently agrees to remove any
restrictions on height from its typical, very strict controls over
land it sells. We all can better see the picture now, and we know
where the local residents rank in the political equation and, of
course, in the hierarchy of the large landowner's world.
Now, the question remains where do the other faiths rank? How high
can they go? The city uses a federal law as cover for the terrible
way it has managed this process. That law does not allow local
government regulations to interfere with religious activities.
However, it seems beyond absurd to expect that federal law would be
interpreted to mean a city must provide unlimited height to church
structures and provide churches the right to build high-rise
structures in low-rise neighborhoods -- especially in cities that
have areas that are zoned to accept high-rise structures.
Fade to a local elementary class, where curious young minds want
to hear about how our government works. Wouldn't it be entertaining
to observe, as our elected officials and city staff try to explain
why the Mormons deserved a higher steeple than the Episcopal Church
and that the officials are waiting to see how well the Catholics
present themselves and play the political game before they decide how
to rule. I guess the city officials wouldn't tell how it really
works. As stated above, they would profess that all faiths are
treated equally. They could tell the children, "It's just the
steeples that are different."
By the way, the deal for 90 feet was cut last week between the
Mormon church leaders and the a small group of area residents through
the efforts of Councilman Steve Bromberg. The residents were fearful
that 90 feet was the best deal they could get. The church is
powerful, and council votes were not there to bring it lower.
This should be a wake-up call for Eastbluff residents near the
Catholic church. And the folks on Balboa Island -- they could also
get a super-sized steeple to look up to. City officials come and go.
These church structures are going to be around a long time.
JOHN A. FRANSEN