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Soft Tissue Wounds

By Frank Gruber

Okay, okay, after taking so many shots at the Planning Commission, I am obliged to admit that they -- or at least the four who were present -- did the right thing Wednesday when the Commission finally got around to looking at the addition to the house at 18 Seaview Terrace. The four denied unanimously the appeals of last August's Architectural Review Board approval. ("Commission Gives Seaview Addition Go ahead," Dec. 5, 2003)

Of course, it did take them awhile -- three hours -- and there were some bumpy moments.

In fairness to the commissioners, however, and even to the appellants -- let me see how far I can take this fairness thing -- a lot of the time that was wasted at the meeting would not have been wasted if the City's ordinances were more clear.

One appellant, John Oursland, based much of his appeal on whether planning staff, in approving the project's zoning compliance, had properly measured the site's "average natural grade" (ANG).

Mr. Oursland's point, briefly, was that the low point of the site should have been determined with reference to the property's southern edge in the alley in the back, not, as the City's policies determine it, within the site where the buildable part of the property begins. Mr. Oursland contended that the property had been filled in, unnaturally, to be level with the higher elevation of Seaview Terrace.

Mr. Oursland's point was that if the ANG were lower, the two story addition on top of a garage that property owners Greg Cole and Sally Frautschy want to build would be too high.

Although Planning Commission Chair Darrell Clarke ultimately made some calculations to show that even if Mr. Oursland were correct the proposed structure would not be higher than the zoning allowed, the issue led to a tense exchange between Planning Director Suzanne Frick and two commissioners, Arlene Hopkins and Jay Johnson.

Although Ms. Frick quite properly admonished the commissioners that an appeal of an ARB decision is not the proper venue for either an appellant to raise zoning issues or planning commissioners to question the meaning of ordinances, Hopkins, Johnson, and Oursland had good grounds for being confused as to the meaning of ANG and how it applied to the Seaview Terrace site.

The reason is that the zoning ordinance's definition of ANG bases it on the "natural state" of a parcel's ground level. As it happens, though, after a century of cutting and filling, in a town where even the sand on the beach owes more to man than God, the City would need a forensic geologist to determine consistently what the "natural state" of the land is.

For this reason, when the ordinance says average "natural" grade, the City has always interpreted this to mean average existing grade. Existing, that is, before new work is done -- a planning staffer told me that a few years ago a property owner on Sixth Street tried to get away with doing his grading before his survey.

As evidence for how the City determines ANG, the City Council adopted a different standard for the hills of Ocean Park -- "theoretical grade." Theoretical grade was, paradoxically, an attempt to compute what Mr. Oursland might call "natural" grade.

So -- who can blame people for being confused in a city where the natural is the existing and the theoretical is the natural?

I admit to having become fascinated by Seaview Terrace. Next February the Terrace celebrates its 90th birthday. The neighborhood disputes raging about it today encapsulate 90 years of conflicting desires for both community and personal space and conflicting attitudes toward neighbor and neighborhood.

Opponents of the Cole/Frautschy addition spoke extravagantly about how the modern addition would "destroy" the historical character of their beach community.

Seaview Terrace was founded on communitarian principles. The developer who sub-divided it created an easement running 30 feet wide down the middle of the parcel for "park and walk purposes." The developer believed that this mandated shared space would be an amenity that would make the little vacation lots he was peddling more valuable.

More than any structure, that impulse for and faith in community is the historical legacy of the Terrace and something to ponder in our day of gated communities.

Commissioner Arlene Hopkins, an ardent preservationist, several times asked the opponents of the Cole/Frautschy addition if they had done anything to create an historic district. The expressions she drew were blank.

Did anyone on the block care much about its history except as it provided a tool for interfering with the plans of their neighbors?

And then Ms. Hopkins also had the most telling comment about preservation, that there is no conflict between modern design and preserving old structures. Modern design in a historical area serves history by highlighting it, as opposed to faux historical additions that debase it.

For a long time the property owners and residents of Seaview Terrace thought they were part of history because their old buildings were crumbling around them. They walled themselves off from each other. They opposed anyone who would invest in the area.

Now they are shocked to find themselves unable to communicate with each other outside a hearing room in City Hall.

As if we were archaeologists, we tend to judge human settlements based on the hardscape, but it's the soft tissues that are more important.
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