Last week the California Coastal Commission voted 9-0 to deny a group of seven doctors a permit to build seven residential condominiums on top of the historical Seacliffs Villa in the Pier Bowl.

Famous architect Virgil Westbrook designed Seacliffs in 1927, along with its historical gardens containing a stepped water feature and Moorish fountain visible from the Pier.  Westbrook also designed Casa Romantica and many other original San Clemente buildings.

Up until the Commission´s denial of the project, the doctors had spent six years and many thousands of dollars submitting different condo plans to the City of San Clemente.  Their original plan called for the demolition of the existing historical building and the construction of ten residential units.  After being turned down, the doctors scaled back their plans.  After being turned away yet again, they opted to ask for only seven condominiums to be built on top of the demolition of the historical gardens and next to ? and overshadowing ? the historical building.

The City´s Planning Commission declined to approve the project last year, so the doctors appealed to the City Council.  In spite of overwhelming public opposition and the reservations of its own planning staff, the Council approved the condo plan with minor modifications.

But the Coastal Commission had the final word last week, and it was, "No."

Why did the doctors take six years to apply before getting a final answer to their residential condo project?  Why did the Planning Commission decline to approve the project?  Why did the City Council approve it?  Why did the Coastal Commission finally kill it?  Who´s to blame?  Who gets credit?  Can we learn anything from this experience?

The answers to these questions may depend on whom you ask.  But the following facts ? overlooked by many ? are unassailable:

1.  Over thirty years ago, the State of California prohibited the demolishing of an historical structure if there´s a viable alternative to demolition.  (California Environmental Quality Act.)  Viable doesn´t mean optimally profitable.

2.  Over ten years ago, the City of San Clemente recognized Seacliffs Villa as an historical structure.  (Designated Historical Structures List.)

3.  In the early 1970s, the voters and State of California gave the last word on coastal development to the California Coastal Commission.  (Proposition 20.)

4.  In the 1990s, the City of San Clemente requested that the Coastal Commission reserve and certify Seacliffs Villa´s zoning as CRC1 ? visitor-serving, not residential.  As requested, the Coastal Commission certified further development as non-residential. (Coastal Element of City General Plan.)

Had these facts been communicated at the outset, the seven doctors may not have purchased the Seacliffs Villa property in 2000, with an eye to demolishing the historical house and gardens in favor of residential condos.  They would have understood that it would be illegal to demolish the historical structure, and it would be illegal to build residences at the site.  They would have understood that the Coastal Commission gets the last word.

Going forward, the San Clemente Historical Society believes that the people of San Clemente ? property owners, developers, architects ? deserve more.  More facts, more candidness, more clarity.

Rather than inadvertently encourage a developer of historical property down a primrose path, the City should take pains to advise them up front about established laws that will ultimately come to bear on their construction plans.

Mike Cotter, Broker Associate, DRE #00806890
Century 21 O.M.A., 229 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, CA 92672
Mobile 949.322.6009, Fax 949.492.7850
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