SAN DIEGO — The Coastal Commission decided Wednesday morning that a faux lighthouse Newport Beach officials say will serve as a city icon and helpful landmark for boaters at the city's planned Marina Park can stand up to 73 feet tall — as tall as the city hoped.
The commission, which regulates development along coasts up and down the state, voted 8 to 2 to allow an amendment to the city's coastal land use plan to allow for the structure, which will exceed an existing 35-foot height limit in the area.
The group met at the Bahia Resort Hotel in San Diego.
A commission staff report had recommended that the height of the proposed tower be limited to 55 feet — a compromise anchored in the fact that 55 feet would be just tall enough to house an unsightly tsunami warning siren mounted on a pole.
But the commission ultimately sided with the city.
The vote included the caveat that language specifying that the exception applies only to the Marina Park structure also be added to the land use plan — a measure aimed at preempting the use of the lighthouse as a precedent for future developments that would change the Newport skyline.
While the commission in June gave a go ahead to the overall Marina Park project, which will include a number of community amenities including recreational slips and a sailing center, they approved it without the proposed lighthouse because of its proposed height.
Later last year, the city applied separately for an exception to its land use plan to allow the 73-foot tall lighthouse.
At the meeting, commissioners who voted in favor of allowing the 73-foot structure said they were persuaded by the lighthouse's potential for helping young sailors find their way to port. The city's proposal to include a bay webcam in the tower was a plus.
"One of the things about Newport Harbor is there's a lot of small boat use," said Commissioner Brian Brennan. For those boats, he said, the lighthouse could help "judge how far you are from a structure like that, line your tacks up and figure out how you're going to get back safely."
But Commissioner Esther Sanchez, who along with Chairwoman Mary Shallenberger voted against the city's application, said she "tried to look at [the lighthouse] in a positive way, and I just can't."
"I really question the public safety aspect of this," she said.
Shallenberger said the compromise between no exception at all and allowing the fully 73-foot structure was "not ideal."
Commissioner Martha McClure agreed that compromise wasn't great — but that was in part why she voted to allow the full 73 feet.
"I agree that the limit is 35 feet and we're making an exception," she said. "Then that determination goes to the city. It's not for us to say, 'Oh maybe it should be 62 or 55.'"
Added Commission Vice Chairman Steve Kinsey: "If anything, this is a place to have an exception to the norm. I think the maritime theme is useful."
With the commission's approval of the height exception, the city will now work to either amend its overall Marina Park development permit to include the taller structure, or apply for a separate development permit for the lighthouse.
City Manager Dave Kiff said the city is "happy" with the result of the vote.
"We think that's an important visual element, and we're glad the commission agreed," he said.
The buildings at Marina Park, he said, are still a ways off, since the construction of the park's proposed public marina will come first.