By Harry Saltzgaver
Four separate appeals were denied Tuesday night and an Environmental Impact Report approved by the City Council for the Belmont Beach and Aquatic Center proposal.
But even advocates and city staff warned that there likely will be significant changes as the state Coastal Commission formally becomes involved in further approvals.
Appeals were of the March 2 Planning Commission decision recommending approval of the EIR, height variance and other permits. Those appeals came from Jeff Miller and Melinda Cotton, another from Joe Weinstein and Ann Cantrell representing Citizens Advocating for Responsible Planning (CARP), a third from Gordana Kajer and the fourth from Anna Christensen representing the Long Beach Area Peace Network.
The appellants joined forces Tuesday, each saying they supported the arguments made by the other. Their presentations lasted about an hour — the same time Assistant City Manager Tom Modica, Development Services Director Amy Bodek and the pool complex design team took to present the staff report.
Public comment took another hour. Then council members debated for nearly two hours before approving the EIR on a 6-2 vote, with Lena Gonzalez (First District) and Roberto Uranga (Seventh District) voting no. Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce was absent due to a family emergency, but sent a letter saying she also would oppose the EIR and uphold the appeals.
Plans have been in the works for the multiple pool complex since 2013, shortly after the original Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool was closed, then demolished, due to fears of collapse in case of an earthquake. The current general plan, estimated to cost about $103 million at that time, was approved by the City Council in 2014 complete with indoor and outdoor Olympic-sized pools, an indoor diving well, a recreational pool and more.
That concept has been debated in multiple meetings and through a steering committee over the last three years, then refined by architects before the final design and preparation of the EIR. But appellant Miller argued the residents did not have adequate chance to participate — and later was supported by Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson.
“Is this (pool) a citywide asset?” Richardson asked. “If it is a citywide asset, which I believe it is, why wasn’t there outreach in the rest of the city? Where were the meetings in the north and west parts of the city?”
Richardson also argued that changing the name from Belmont to Long Beach would be more inclusive.
Appellants also argued that the city had not explored alternative sites adequately, and argued building the pool on the beach was asking for trouble. A letter from Coastal Commission staff received on May 11 appeared to make the same argument. Gordana Kajer reference the letter, which said:
“Chapter 3 of the Coastal Act provides that new development should not be located in hazardous areas subject to sea level rise and shoreline erosion if there are feasible alternatives.”
Modica countered by saying the city adequately answered those concerns and went “above and beyond” when considering alternatives. Bodek added that the new complex was considered a replacement project for the Belmont Pool, and as such had a right to be built at the same location.
But Uranga, who also serves on the Coastal Commission, said he was skeptical of that interpretation, and added that he thought the current project was far too large for the site.
“This is a new project … and must conform to the Coastal Act,” Uranga said. “There are some issues that are nonconforming. I’m going to predict right now that the height is going to have to come down. I want to see the city build a replacement, but with the issues of sea level rise, I have a hard time seeing there is a project here, at this location.”
Modica said that the staff expected there would be requirements for changes from the Coastal Commission, but that there could not be a formal dialogue with the state until the EIR had been certified. Then, he said, the city could deal directly with the state staff.
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, who has advocated in favor of the pool since taking office, also acknowledged that there would be changes as the process moved forward. Still, she said, the aquatics complex would be a jewel when finished.
“During the next phase, city staff will work with the California Coastal Commission staff to review the project proposal and to respond to concerns and explore opportunities to modify the project so that it is a project that the Coastal Commission and Council can both support,” Price wrote.
Before voting no, Uranga said again that the Coastal Commission likely would shrink the size of the project.
“We may end up saying then that there isn’t a project there,” Uranga concluded.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Gordana Kajer referenced a letter from the Coastal Commission, but did not quote from it.