Coastal Commission to review Newport lighthouse proposal

When Newport Beach city staffers head to San Diego on Wednesday for the March California Coastal Commission meeting, they plan to go big or go home when it comes to the 71-foot faux lighthouse the city hopes to build at Marina Park.

Right now, said Public Works Director Dave Webb, the city has permission to build a tower of up to 35 feet — the current height limit for the area — as part of the commission's approval of the whole park. The city has applied separately for an exception to that height limit to build up to 73 feet.

To settle instead for a 55-foot tower, as a commission staff report recommends, Webb said, "doesn't give us the destination and wayfinding we need."

"It doesn't make sense for the additional cost," he said. "I'm pretty sure the commission will understand that and approve the 71 feet."

But if commissioners side with the report issued in advance of the three-day meeting — which will also decide the fate of Newport's beach fire rings — the city's plans for an "iconic" structure at the long-planned Balboa Peninsula community center may get short shrift.

According to the report, the lighthouse as proposed would impact "public views and community character."

A 55-foot lighthouse, on the other hand, would be tall enough to house a tsunami warning device the city proposed for the structure, without more than doubling the current height limit.

The report recommended that the commission deny the city's application, pending the city's agreement to modify the application to make the lighthouse 55 feet tall.

The report cited the city's application, which said the extra height would provide "a navigational element for watercraft; an [enclosure] for telecommunication and tsunami warning device equipment; a focal point; and an established iconic landmark."

In July, the city voted to change its own land-use plan to allow for the structure. It submitted its application to the commission in October, which was first rejected as incomplete.

In November, it submitted a new request, which was accepted.

In its application, the city included analyses of nearby structures that also exceed that height limit, including the 81-foot high Balboa Pavilion cupola and a 43-foot tall tower at the Balboa Inn.

But, according to the report, most of the six buildings mentioned were built before the passage of the Coastal Act in the 1970s, which gave the commission authority over coastal areas, and all of the structures were built before the 2005 adoption of the city's Shoreline Height Limitation Zone was established.

Ultimately, the report said, the tower didn't need to be upwards of 70 feet tall to achieve any of its stated purposes and would set a bad precedent — a view shared by some residents who have argued against the park.

The tsunami warning equipment to be housed is 54.25 feet tall, it said.

"Furthermore," the report continues, "a 35-foot-high non-functioning lighthouse tower associated with the proposed restroom at the Marina Park Project was already approved by the commission as part of the June 2012 [Coastal Development Permit.]"

That lighthouse, the report suggests, "could serve as the focal point and iconic landmark the city is seeking to establish at the site."

In June, the commission approved the park project as a whole, which is slated to include a 23-slip public marina, a multi-purpose community building and a Girl Scout building, among other amenities. The project will displace residents living in about 60 mobile homes on the site.

The permit approved in June is still being processed, though the City Council on Tuesday voted to approve a roughly $1.2-million contract for construction management services for the project.

The wait, city officials said at the meeting, has been the source of some frustration.

"It's been about nine months," Webb said Friday. "It's an extraordinarily long time."

As for the lighthouse, the commission has until February of next year to make a final decision after it extended the deadline in January.


Fire Rings

At Wednesday's meeting the commission may resolve an issue that officials have said they're burning to see put to rest.

Commission staff recommended that the city's fire rings stay in place, contrary to a city request. A staff report said if the city removed the rings, it would put an unacceptable damper on public beach access.

After a long debate at the city level, Newport submitted an application to remove the fire rings at Corona del Mar State Beach and on either side of Balboa Pier, citing neighbors' health concerns about smoke from the wood burned in the rings. Residents who argued against removing the rings said they made up an integral and decades-old part of Newport's beach culture.

Friday, Deputy Community Development Director Brenda Wisneski said staff from her department plan to attend the commission meeting to plead their case.

"Our approach is to basically remind the Coastal Commission that the staff recommendation [to keep the rings] does not recognize the health issues that have been documented extensively," she said. "It's been demonstrated that 10% of the population has asthma. Those people can't come to the beach when the fire rings are being used."

She added that in exchange for removing the rings, the city could propose adding new public amenities to the beaches, like volleyball and basketball courts or a covered, illuminated seating area available for evening activities.

"We're waiting to see what the Coastal Commission does," she said.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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