Commission limits beach-side pools

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Moving decisively to close a zoning law loophole that could have set off a wave of swimming pool construction on the beach, the Planning Commission last week rejected a Carbon Beach homeowner’s plans to build a pool on the sand that extended farther seaward than the home’s oceanfront balcony.

The zoning code requires houses and balconies along the beachfront to extend only as far seaward as those of neighboring property owners. This so-called stringline rule is designed to prevent beachfront property owners from encroaching on the ocean views of their neighbors.

But while the code explicitly addresses the stringline for decks and enclosed living spaces, it does not specify a limit on how far seaward swimming pools may extend. At the same time, another section of the zoning code permits swimming pools to project without limit into any yard.

Taking the zoning code provisions on their face, Planning Director Craig Ewing approved the plans of Carbon Beach homeowners Charles and Danica Perez to build a pool on the beach, part of which would have extended farther seaward than their home’s ocean-facing balcony.

But with ocean views at stake, and perhaps the structural integrity of adjacent properties as well, the neighbors of the Perezes were sure to challenge Ewing’s decision. As it turns out, the Perezes’ neighbors are the well-known activists Gil and Joanne Segel, two names regularly in the news.

The Segels challenged the location of the pool on the grounds that it violated a General Plan provision that prohibits any structures beyond the deck stringline. They, and their attorney, Frank Angel, also claimed that during storms, a pool located seaward of a deck would deflect incoming waves onto adjacent homes, causing greater erosion of neighboring properties.

Arguing Ewing’s decision based on the zoning code should be overturned, Angel told the commissioners last week, “The General Plan provision prevails. It takes precedence over the zoning code if the zoning code is inconsistent.”

Both Segels said they were not happy to be in conflict with their neighbor, but Gil Segel said beachfront homeowners in the city would “race” to build pools seaward of their decks if the commission did not reverse the planning director’s decision.

The Perez’s attorney, Diane DeFelice, argued mainly that the Segels had failed to challenge the planning director’s ruling within the time period permitted by law, and therefore had waived any right to dispute Ewing’s decision.

But mindful of the precedent the case could set, the commission disregarded DeFelice’s argument, and on a 4-1 vote agreed with the Segels that the location of the pool would violate the General Plan.

Commissioner Ed Lipnick, who cast the lone no vote, said he agreed with the planning director’s reading of the zoning code. Still, he told Danica Perez, who attended the meeting, that from his experience of living on the beach and waiting out storms, he would not build a pool there.

“I don’t know why people want to build pools on the beach, but they do,” said Lipnick.

Vice Chair Ken Kearsley, upon hearing only 120 square feet of the pool would protrude past the deck stringline, urged the parties to resolve their dispute over a cup of coffee, rather than continuing to involve the city.

“Whatever happened to common sense?” said Kearsley. “This whole thing is over 120 square feet.”

Taking a cue from Kearsley, Chair Andrew Stern then suggested a novel approach to help the parties avert an anticipated lawsuit. He asked the Perezes and the Segels whether they would be interested in negotiating an informal settlement informally before the commissioners voted to overrule Ewing.

“Let’s see if there’s a way to stop it tonight … and take the burden off the City Council and the courts,” said Stern.

The parties took Stern up on his offer, but they were unable to agree on settlement terms.

The Perez case could still be appealed to the City Council, but some thought the council members are unlikely to support any move that might encourage further development of the beachfront.