Mormon temple could have been taller

June Casagrande

Of all the startling twists and turns in the year-long Mormon

temple debate, none was more eye-opening than what was revealed at

Tuesday's City Council meeting. Half the council members said they

would have supported the temple with a 99-foot, 9-inch steeple.

Two more offered comments of such strong support for the temple to

make it a safe bet that the plan would have won majority, if not

unanimous, council support. But far more remarkable: Some council

members, including Mayor Tod Ridgeway, had told church planners in

advance that they would have supported the higher steeple. Church of

Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials had solid reason to

believe that they didn't have to lower the height of the steeple to

just 90 feet. Yet they did.

"We really wanted the community to feel that it was a project they

could support," said Weatherford Clayton, president of the church's

Newport Beach stake center, on Thursday. "If dropping the steeple a

little over 9 feet can bring a community together, we were willing to

make that change."

In retrospect, it was a startling gesture of good will or at least

good public relations. In practice, it was an olive branch that

turned an increasingly ugly battle into a solution so widely embraced

that it won a standing ovation in City Council chambers.

"Things are on the verge of getting warm and fuzzy here," said

City Councilman Steve Bromberg, whom colleagues and community members

lauded as the peacemaker who made it all possible.

Along with Councilman John Heffernan, whose constituents are also

directly affected by the new temple, Bromberg worked with neighbors

and church leaders toward a resolution.

Also remarkable is the fact that the matter never degenerated into

one of religious disagreement or prejudice. Even at their most

outraged, the opponents of the project stuck to design issues. And,

even at their most beleaguered, church leaders never copped out by

saying they were being unfairly persecuted. As Bromberg put it,

"Everyone took the high road."

The church first introduced plans for Orange County's first Mormon

temple in October 2001. Plans for the 17,575-square-foot structure

next door to the existing stake center featured a skinny spire that

reached 124 feet into the sky, including a 12-foot gold-colored

statue of the Angel Moroni.

Some residents in the surrounding communities were vehement in

their opposition: The stark white, well-lighted building with the

high steeple was just too visually imposing for the low-lying,

consistent-looking planned communities, they said. Struggles,

compromises and some harsh words ensued.

By October, their request for a permit included a toned-down

building color, softer lights and reduced hours of lighting, and a

99-foot, 9-inch steeple.

But in the days before the modified request came before the

Planning Commission, a startling revelation by a resident cast a

whole new light on the proceedings. Allen Murray looked at the

steeple on the existing stake center and realized it looked much

shorter than the 86 feet noted in planning documents. So he took out

his sextant and, ultimately, hired a private surveyor. The steeple

there is really just 68 feet, city staff confirmed.

Some residents grew angry. Staff reports contradict each other on

the question of whether the stake center steeple was used as a

reference point for recommending a nearly 100-foot steeple. Church

officials had emphasized that the temple's steeple must appear bigger

than the stake center's in order to fulfill the building's higher

religious purpose. And, likely, some residents looked to the existing

steeple to try to imagine how the temple would affect their views and

the character of their neighborhoods.

A Planning Commission meeting turned into an inquisition. Why,

commission Chairman Steven Kiser wanted to know, did planning

documents say the existing steeple was 86 feet and why didn't anyone

point it out?

The documents were based on the original approvals for the stake

center, which had been done when the Bonita Canyon Drive location

fell under the jurisdiction of the city of Irvine. Irvine approved an

86-foot steeple and when church leaders decided to build it shorter,

there was no reason to document their change of plans.

Further, none of the people who were planning the temple had been

involved in planning the stake center. Clayton said he had not known

about the discrepancy.

Church representative Joe Bentley, however, had known that there

might be a discrepancy. And though he was chastised for not pointing

it out, he had in fact mentioned it in an e-mail to city planner

James Campbell prior to the Planning Commission meeting.

When asked during the meeting why he didn't bring it up again,

Bentley apologized and offered several reasons why he didn't point it

out a second time. For one thing, all the computer images of the

temple's appearance were based on a crane that had been parked on the

site. He said they offered a fair image of what the temple would look

like with or without comparison to the stake center. The crane had

also served as a reference for neighbors to get an idea of how the

proposed steeple would look. Also, he said, the church's design did

not use the 86-foot figure as a major basis for their temple design.

In short, it didn't seem relevant.

Of all these facts, one lingered most prominently in the public

consciousness: Bentley had known there might be a discrepancy. By the

time a group of residents appealed the matter to the City Council,

Bentley's reputation had suffered some serious bruises -- damage many

believe was unfair.

"I want to exonerate someone who's been unfairly vilified in this

whole process and that's Joe Bentley," Ridgeway told the gathering

Tuesday night, emphasizing his belief that Bentley had been honest

throughout the process. "He didn't deserve to be vilified for this."

On Wednesday, Ridgeway added: "He's a good man. It wasn't fair to

chastise him based on that information."

Church officials said they're anxious to start work on the

project, but a little bit of red tape is standing in the way of

setting a groundbreaking date. Once they obtain a few more permits

through the city, they will begin work that they expect will take

anywhere from 18 to 24 months. When, in about two years, a new temple

stands, some predict that most, if not all of the community, will

stand with it.

In the words of Steven Brombal, president of the Bonita Canyon

Homeowners Assn., who initially was an outspoken opponent of the

original temple plans: "We're ready to move forward as a community."

* 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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