LONG BEACH - What started out in 1995 as a proposal for a 22-home oceanfront subdivision in north Long Beach has ballooned into plans for a 126-unit condo development - plans which have left a number of local residents shaking their heads and asking some hard questions.

These questions were posed at recent city council and city planning commission meetings during the last several weeks, ever since new plans for the development were made available to the public. The development is being proposed by local developer Robert Merrill, who owns and operates Long Beach Go Carts on 10th Street.

Plans are for the development to be situated on a 7.13-acre site between 17th Street NW and 18th Street NW, a parcel of land that is currently undeveloped and consists primarily of dune grass and a scrub pine forest.

The development as currently planned would consist of three rectangular buildings of 30 units each and one building near the west property boundary containing 36 units. Merrill's plans also include a separate clubhouse building. The property is currently zoned S2 (Shoreline Multi-family), which entails a 35-foot height restriction.

Zoning change from S1 to S2 Much of the ire being expressed is due to the fact that Merrill was able to get the property rezoned from S1 Residential/Single-family to S2 Residential/Multi-family, apparently without having to notify any neighbors. By bringing this situation to the forefront, local residents such as Mike O'Hara have put the city on the spot to explain how this happened.

"There's been a lot of confusion as to how, when and if the zoning was changed on land owned by Mr. Merrill up near 18th Street Northwest," said O'Hara at a Sept. 16 city council meeting.

Another attendee of the Sept. 16 city council meeting, Char Sutherland, also had some hard questions for councilors.

"I need to know how and why things have changed and how this happened," said Sutherland.

Legal notices started in 1995 The first time the public got wind of a development on Merrill's 18th Street NW property was in early 1995 when legal notices ran announcing a hearing for review of a 22-home subdivision. Notices also ran in the summer of 1997 pertaining to Merrill obtaining a shoreline development permit.

But by March 1998, the city's legal notices in the newspaper stopped mentioning the Merrill development and focused on zoning ordinance amendments, such as allowing six-foot tall fences in commercial zones abutting streets. In April of 1998 still more legal notices were printed to announce a public hearing for GMA zoning ordinance amendments, which was to be held on April 30, 1998.

This hearing was only attended by one planning commission member, so a necessary quorum was not present at the hearing, therefore the rezones were not discussed.

"However at the May 7, 1998 planning commission meeting, it was still decided to forward the zoning ordinance text changes to the city council for approval," said O'Hara. "Subsequently at the June 15, 1998 city council meeting, without any discussion of the rezones in question, or Merrill's rezone, the city council adopted Ordinance No. 721, which was a revised zoning ordinance of Ordinance No. 634."

At this time, as part of Ordinance No. 721, there was a blanket rezone of a number of areas of the city and it appears that some of these rezones were from S1 single-family home to S2 multi-family home, including Merrill's property.

"Isolated rezones have happened before and since this date, but this was different in that this time it appeared to be a city-wide revision," said O'Hara.

Property owners not nofifiedNone of the property owners adjacent to Merrill's property were notified, because the planning commission did not discuss the rezone at the April 30, 1998 planning commission "hearing" and therefore saw no need to notify the property owners.

Although notice was given in the newspaper for the zoning ordinance to be reviewed by the planning commission on April 30, 1998 and by the city council on June 15, 1998, the legal notices never used the word "rezone" and appeared to be only concerning text changes to the city's zoning ordinance.

The end result was that none of the notices explained that rezones were being considered, or where they were being considered in the city.

"The wording in the notices didn't help the man on the street realize this," said O'Hara. "The property owners within 300 feet were not notified of these rezones. Some of them may not even know today that this happened in the past."

Amendments to zoning ordinanceAccording to the city's zoning ordinance, amendments can be made in three ways: 1) They can be initiated by the city council; 2) They can be initiated by the planning commission; 3) They can be initiated by a property owner in writing at least 20 days before the planning commission where it will be heard. Also, under state law, the city can do one zoning amendment per year.

Long Beach City Administrator Nabiel Shawa agreed that a rezone can be done by an individual property owner, but clarified how this same property owner can get his property rezoned without notifying adjacent property owners.

"When you go to re-adopt a new zoning code, everything is open," said Shawa. "And it isn't just changing zones. It's height limits, densities - all the performance standards pertaining therein. Everything is on the table."

Blanket rezone vs. individual rezone So, what this means is that when the city's zoning ordinance is opened up, the city has no requirement to notify neighbors within 300 feet of a zoning change which will occur near their home.

"I know that's absolutely legal," said Shawa. "That's correct."

Shawa said that while zoning is one issue, the various performance standards within each zone - what's allowed, what isn't allowed - the city can slip a whole laundry list of items that are permitted in that zone.

"It's an unfortunate remark, but it's a citizen's duty to stay involved with these things," said Shawa. "It wasn't done in a capricious manner or to cause hardship on anybody. There were public hearing processes and the notices were published in the paper."

According to Shawa, during the early to mid-90s, under the state's Growth Management Act, when the city was required to comply with growth management goals, one of the things which the city's department of community development wanted to see was more multi-family dwellings in Long Beach.

"They said back off, constrain, force development within your city to preserve rural areas," said Shawa. "It was at that time where we started looking at how we get more S2 zones in here because we really had very little of it."

Looking for a solution Local hotelier Susie Goldsmith asked at the Sept. 16 city council meeting if the Merrill property rezoning brings up the whole topic of whether the city needs to formulate some policy for the future that doesn't put the onus on the property owner to interpret the legal notices, which can be very vague, such as those which ran in the spring of 1998.

"I mean I would like something positive to come of this confusion, so that it shouldn't be our problem whether my property has been rezoned without me knowing about it," said Goldsmith. "So we need to formulate some policies so that it's really clear to all of us so that we know. So the question is still how do citizens know that the process is occurring, because it sounds very casual. It could happen and you might just not know about it."

Upcoming hearing on Oct. 17 At the Oct. 3 city planning commission meeting, a joint hearing was set for Merrill's shoreline permit and his planned unit development (PUD) for the proposed condo development, but was deferred to Oct. 17. The hearing will take place at approximately 7 p.m. at the Long Beach City Hall.

The reason why the hearing was rescheduled was because, based on the city's unified development ordinance, it is specifically stated that the time between any SEPA threshold determination and a record hearing there must be a minimum 15 day comment period. As it turned out, there was only 14 days which had passed, so the hearing was rescheduled.

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