The Planning Commission postponed its decision on whether to recommend a three-story building ban in San Clemente's downtown area after more than four hours of heated commentary from the public.
Several were in favor of keeping the current process in place, which demands rigorous architectural review before landowners can add a third story.
A faction led by the demanded the ban be enacted, saying over-development would destroy San Clemente's unique character.
The comments from the public became heated at times as more than three dozen residents spoke on the matter. The speakers were about equally split for and against the ban, and Planning Commissioner Lew Avera said the commission also received numerous emails and dozens of comments on the issue.
Georgette Korsen of the Historical Society said they had collected hundreds of signatures on a petition in support of the proposed ban.
Jeff Hook, the city's principle planner, told the Planning Commission that the current zoning for the downtown area is designated Mixed-Use 3. A few lots more than 12,000 square feet are allowed to add a third story up to 45 feet without a conditional use permit as long as the building contains both residential and commercial uses.
The other properties have to obtain a conditional use permit from the city to add a third story. According to Hook, every substantial improvement to any building in town must undergo an extensive design review process. That process is an adequate check to over-development, said opponents of the ban.
Since these guidelines were put into place 18 years ago, there have been six three-story projects throughout the city.
But Mike Cotter of the Historical Society said that control wasn't enough to prevent "canyonization" of downtown streets, destroying their "human scale" as apparent in development in downtown Huntington Beach.
"More three-story buildings would forever impact the feel of the downtown even if they were designed by the best architects," he said.
Michael Luna of the South Orange County Architects Guild disagreed. He pointed to design guidelines that encouraged architects to set back upper stories and open courtyards, allowing architects the flexibility to break up masses and create more attractive structures within the Spanish colonial revival aesthetic.
Architects from RSM Design based in downtown San Clemente spoke on behalf of the Commercial Property Owners Association of San Clemente opposing the ban.
"A homogeneous two stories throughout San Clemente would do a disservice to the village character," said RSM's Harry Mark in a video presentation.
Chris Hamm, who is running for one of two San Clemente City Council seats up for grabs in November was in favor of the ban. He criticized opponents who said restricting height would stymie re-investment in property downtown.
"I think we have plenty of examples of small buildings on Del Mar... that are successful and have penciled out," he said.
Opponents of the ban uniformly pointed to the renovation of what was the Coronet building on the corner of Del Mar and Ola Vista. It now has a tower element and houses and The restaurants.
They also pointed to various three- and four-story buildings from the 1920s era of town founder Ole Hanson, whose presumed vision was repeatedly evoked in supporting both sides of the debate.
The Planning Commission will take up the debate and make a recommendation at their next meeting, 7 p.m. Sept. 5 and make a recommendation to city council. That body would ultimately have to approve any ban to make it official.
The commission meets in , 100 Ave. Presidio.