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Ocean Beach size-and-scale plan approved

The San Diego City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a community plan for Ocean Beach designed to preserve its small-town character, while maintaining a tough hurdle against homeowners trying to renovate or expand their buildings beyond what the plan allows.

The plan, which has gone through 12 years of negotiation, is designed to uphold size-and-scale standards for residential neighborhoods and encourage low-key mixed-use commercial and residential developments.

Although the plan has not been finalized, due to a handful of unresolved questions from the California Coastal Commission, it seemed to have the universal support of neighborhood residents, except for a proposed change by the city's Planning Department that would have made it easier for property owners to apply for variances from the building codes in the plan, which among other things discourage multilevel buildings near the beach.

Several property owners from the 5100 block of West Point Loma Boulevard — a beachside location lined with two- and three-story homes used for vacation rentals — pushed for the variances, arguing that they were necessary for making renovations to their buildings.

"Proponents of the plan say that (unless the code is tightly enforced) we are going to be overdeveloped and that we're going to look like Mission Beach," said real estate broker David Stebbins, who owns a residence on West Point Loma. "Believe me, I don't want it to be like Mission Beach."

Stebbins said that there should be room for residences in Ocean Beach ranging from small beach bungalows to multilevel homes. If the plan is too restrictive, he said, it "could get tied up just like the Barrio Logan plan," which was overturned by a public referendum last month after a heavily funded campaign by shipyards.

But the vast majority of speakers at the Council, bolstered by petitions bearing close to 4,000 signatures, warned that if the Planning Department issued too many variances, it could change the nature of the neighborhood.

The renovated homes, sometimes rented out for hundreds of dollars a night to vacationers, could eventually squeeze out working-class residents as well as the businesses that cater to them, they said.

Peter Ruscitti, who heads the Ocean Beach Planning Board, said that if residents truly need a variance on the code, they could apply to the board. "There are special circumstances that could require a variance and we will always read them on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Ruscitti and other speakers complained that the Planning Department's variances are often overly broad, so that a single variance might be worded in a way that applies to hundreds of homes.

In the end, the City Council rejected the Planning Department's stance on the variances.

Councilmember Ed Harris, whose district includes Ocean Beach, noted that he and his wife had previously bought, renovated and rented out several beach properties without ever feeling the need to go beyond what the code allows.

"We knew what the restrictions were when we brought the properties, but we never applied for a variance," said Harris, temporarily filling the seat that Kevin Faulconer left when he was elected mayor this year.

"We believed in putting lifestyle and community above profit. The plan ensures that things will remain on a small scale."

Councilmember Lorie Zapf, who will take over Harris' District Two seat after the November elections, seconded his motion to pass the plan without the Planning Department's amendment.

Zapf said that Ocean Beach "is probably the only authentic beach community in all of Southern California," thanks largely to zoning restrictions dating to the 1970s.

Council President Todd Gloria congratulated the Ocean Beach residents who showed up to support the plan.

"You're very lucky to have gotten the plan that you've been asking for. We've seen in recent history that not every community gets that kind of respect," he said, referring to the Barrio Logan plan, which was broadly supported within the neighborhood but overturned by a citywide vote.

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