Typically, development regulations, zoning laws and trends in urban planning aren't sexy campaign topics, especially in local elections dominated by everyday issues like pothole repairs and keeping the pool open longer hours.
But not in San Clemente.
Right now, City Council candidates and the public at large are debating whether to ban three story buildings or try costly "form-based" codes that essentially draw builders a picture of what the city wants from them.
As one city staffer said during the divisive Measure A development debate, "Well, they've always said San Clemente is a city of planners."
That has seldom been more clear than during the recent debate over whether to allow three-story additions and developments in the historic areas of North Beach and the Avenida Del Mar/El Camino Real "T-Zone." Opponents of the three-story ban idea ― led by the San Clemente Historical Society in response to a proposed building by Olen next to the old City Hall ― point out that the current zoning has been in place since the 1940s.
Ban opponents want to institute an urban development trend called form-based codes. In Riverside County, Norco uses form-based codes to institute a Western design aesthetic in its Old Towne neighborhood. In Orange County, Fullerton used such codes in planning its 39-acre transit-oriented development downtown in 2010.
At the time, Fullerton Development Director Rob Zur Schmiede said form-based zoning focuses less on land use, setback measurements and density, and more on what the city wants the area to look like.
For example, planners will look at how best to design the streets; what sort of architectural styles best fit the area, given all the historic buildings; how much open space there should be and where to put it; and what kind of benches, lighting and landscaping to use.
Because this kind of zoning and code is more concerned with what new buildings look like than what they're used for, one can make general assumptions about the feel and flavor of the area.
In 2010, Fullerton’s senior planner Jay Eastman explained how the code would focus on the streetscape and how buildings interact with other buildings, the environment and landscaping. He said in Fullerton's development, all the buildings will be brick, masonry or stucco. Vinyl siding and shingle roofs won't be allowed.
The zoning codes laid out all the permitted uses in blocks. For instance, west of Pomona Avenue, buildings would contain retail space on the ground floor and residential units above and will be from three to five stories tall. East of Pomona would be primarily housing with some retail fronting Commonwealth Avenue, and buildings will be from three- to six-stories, Eastman said.
According to the Form-Based Codes Institute, annotations to the code include illustrations drawn up by architectural consultants depicting the sort of features the city expects to be incorporated into each building.
One drawback to form-based codes is their high cost to implement. According to the institute, cities have to put out a request for qualifications to find a consultant, who then conducts a lengthy process involving dozens of public meetings and drafts, all of which is expensive.
In recent years, the San Clemente budget's surpluses have been razor-thin, and the state has dissolved its redevelopment agency, which has taken away a huge funding sources. It is unclear as of yet where money for potential form-based zoning would come from.
Where Council Candidates Stand
Council Candidate and incumbent Jim Dahl has expressed interest in the form-based codes approach.
"People's property rights in this community have been abused in the past," Dahl said at a Sunday Historical Society forum. "The concerns are adequately covered in form-based codes."
Candidate Mike Mortenson in a September forum aligned with Dahl in saying he wanted to make three-story development more rigorous, but not ban it outright.
Candidate Bob Baker, however, disagreed: he said Sunday that form-based codes, "allow the government to pick winners and losers."
Candidate Chris Hamm tends to align with Baker on this issue.
"It does not fit with our small town character," he said at the September forum.
Candidate David Clegg has focused more on providing monetary incentives for building owners to improve their properties and maintaining the Spanish-colonial revival architectural style in town.
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How should the city regulate development in the heart of the city?