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Associate Planner Sean Nicholas explains changes to proposed freeway-oriented signage for Sports Authority at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, where the signage was rejected. Photo: Jim Shilander
San Clemente Associate Planner Sean Nicholas explains changes to proposed freeway-oriented signage for Sports Authority at Tuesday’s San Clemente City Council meeting, where the signage was rejected. Photo: Jim Shilander

By Jim Shilander

After a second meeting that included more than a dozen resident comments, nearly an hour of deliberation and a last minute compromise proposal, the San Clemente City Council denied, by a 3-2 vote, a sign exception permit for a freeway-oriented sign for Sports Authority, potentially putting plans for the refurbishment of the Estrella Plaza project in jeopardy.

Councilman Tim Brown, who was absent from the previous debate at the council’s April 7 meeting, voted in favor of the proposal, joining Councilwoman Lori Donchak. But Mayor Pro Tem Bob Baker, who had previously sided with Donchak to create a 2-2 deadlock on April 7 (with Mayor Chris Hamm and councilwoman Kathy Ward against), reversed himself, despite the sign being reduced in size from the previous meeting.

“It’s going one step too far for me,” Baker said. “I just can’t do it.”

Brown said the current council had a good record on not granting special exceptions, or doing so only in specific circumstances. The proposed sign, he said, did not move him to think that the costs outweighed the benefits of the changes to the center. Donchak also noted the lack of residents in the area around the center opposing the proposal. Ward said she could not vote to approve a sign that does not meet the city’s guidelines for granting an exception.

A number of business owners within the plaza—on Camino De Estrella at the Capistrano Beach/San Clemente border—urged the council to vote in favor, citing the sad state of the facility, which they said had become a haven for homeless and was difficult to attract customers to. Opponents said the city needed to adhere to its established standards, which reject freeway signage in all but a few circumstances.

When the council appeared to be moving toward a denial, the applicant, Steve Usdan of Kornwasser Shopping Center Properties, the owner of the former Kmart building, asked for time to find another solution. Tim Wald, director of real estate for Sports Authority, indicated the company could accept reduced signage, changing the size of its letters from 6 feet in height to 5 feet on the freeway-oriented sign, as well as lowering the sign in elevation. However, the denial still held.

The future of the project may now be in doubt. Usdan said financing for its proposed $11 million rebuild was partially contingent on Sports Authority coming in. Without the sign, Usdan said, the company could terminate its lease, potentially leading to the loss of the two other retailers, Stein Mart and Sprouts. The company could choose to leave the building in its current state and offer it to a single store, he said. HE told the council before the vote that a vote against the sign was essentially a vote against the proposed project.

Wald said his company “was not playing chicken” with regard to the importance of the sign.

Because the council denied the proposal with prejudice, the developer could technically return a modified proposal to the body for review rather than having to wait a year.

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