Zoning ordinance debates continue

NEWPORT BEACH — Entire stretches of bayfront may soon have condos instead of businesses. But that sweeping change to the city's landscape hasn't riled residents nearly as much as one that would affect the size and shape of their homes.

After two years of contentious public hearings and detailed committee meetings, the Newport Beach Planning Commission did not reach a consensus Thursday night on changes to its zoning ordinance. The commissioners voted 4-3 against approving a draft version of the revised code.

Essentially, commissioners split on how to determine the allowable size of future residences. Meanwhile, they compromised on new mixed-use zoning rules that could allow residential development in waterfront areas to replace some commercial uses, such as boat sales and service shops. But their greater impasse killed the vote and leaves the City Council with a heavily revised document and weighty issues to address — at least weighty in the eyes of some residents.

"This is the big one because we're talking about people in their homes," Planning Director David Lepo said before Thursday's vote.

Currently, owners can build a home that is 1.5 times the buildable area of their land (the lot minus the required separation from the street or other lots). For example, if the lot has 3,000 buildable square feet, owners can build a 4,500-square-foot home.

Under the draft zoning code, new homes would no longer be subject to those conditions. Instead, owners and their architects would have to make a number of calculations that would ultimately dictate how large a home can be.

These calculations include the height of the proposed home, the indentations on a home's exterior walls, the slope of the home's yards and whether it has a third story.

Architects and commissioners designed the changes to limit the size of homes and make the architecture more interesting — hoping to prevent the "mansionization" of Newport Beach.

"With the ideas and the concept we've come up with, we're going to have buildings that are more interesting looking and less massive," said Todd Schooler, a Newport Beach architect who advised the Planning Commission.

The catch: Property owners on Balboa Island wouldn't have to follow the new rules, but everyone else throughout the city limits would. Islanders were able to sway committee members drafting these changes, and their recommendations were passed on to the Planning Commission.

When property owners from Corona del Mar found out about the Balboa Island owners' exemption, they lobbied the planners to exempt their neighborhood, too. Ultimately, they won an amendment, which is now in limbo because of Thursday's vote.

People from West Newport and the Balboa Peninsula later complained.

"Newport Beach is really a conglomeration of villages," said City Councilman Steve Rosansky, who represents parts of West Newport. "But we can't micromanage every little tiny area."

Some residents have interpreted the changes to mean homes may actually be larger. Others have worried they may not be large enough. And others just don't like what they hear.

"We're getting more and more complicated, and we're not really fixing the problem," Corona del Mar resident Richard "Dick" Nichols, 70, said at the meeting.

Ultimately, the planning commissioners made up their minds about the provisions. But after two years of committee meetings and commission public hearings, they were unable to come to a compromise.

"I'm puzzled. I would have assumed that with enough of work that had gone on, enough people would have been on board," City Councilwoman Nancy Gardner said.

Three commissioners supported a plan that would have exempted Balboa Island and Corona del Mar: Charles Unsworth, Barry Eaton and Earl McDaniel.

For different reasons, two commissioners rejected the new technique: Michael Toerge and Bradley Hillgren.

Toerge said the city shouldn't remove the current floor-area limitation, which is 1.5 times the size of the buildable area.

"We're taking away the objective, most fundamental way of measuring the homes," he said at the meeting.

Hillgren said the city should consider a more "creative" way of managing home sizes, such as allowing owners to build more overall if they build some underground.

"We missed it," he said Friday.

Planning Commission Chairman Robert Hawkins would not say why he voted no, and Commissioner Scott Peotter thought that Corona del Mar should not be exempt.

"The idea of having three different zoning codes in the city is just ridiculous," Peotter said.

If the Planning Commission doesn't reconsider the vote, the City Council will have to take up these changes. City Councilman Don Webb, who served on the committee that created the draft changes, said he was disappointed but optimistic that they could work out the disputes.

"They are a very small part of the huge zoning code revisions," he said, "although they are very important to those neighborhoods."

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