Battle over development in Newport Beach continues with an inititive that would add to restrictions approved in 2000
One little law, devised and approved by residents, has derailed plans for waterfront hotels and multimilliondollar office towers. It’s forced countless companies, including giants such as the Irvine Co. and Pacific Life, to abandon projects or build elsewhere.
Now, six years after the landmark Greenlight Initiative hit the books in Newport Beach, backers say it didn’t go far enough.
Greenlight II, known officially as Measure X, appears on this city’s Nov. 7 ballot.
The first measure won with 63 percent of the vote, and if its sequel even squeaks by, few large-scale developments will ever see the light of day without voter say-so.
“It’s Greenlight I on steroids,” said Paul Watkins, a neighborhood leader and opponent of the new measure.
Had Greenlight II been in place last year, the newly built Newport Lexus dealership and the upcoming Bel Mare shopping center each would have come before voters.
Despite its far-reaching provisions, the measure may face a smoother path this time.
In 2000, the Irvine Co. led a $650,000 opposition effort that included a competing ballot measure-.”Frankly, that strategy didn’t prove very effective,” company spokesman John Christensen said, explaining why the Irvine Co. is watching the current campaign from the sidelines.
But a local group, bankrolled in part by the Building Industry Association of Southern California, is aiming to fill the gap. No on Measure X, a small coalition of civic leaders, has spent nearly $90,000 to block the Greenlight follow-up.
The measure has hit several procedural snags as well. A paperwork foulup kept all but one proponent’s name off the ballot argument in favor of Greenlight II. A lawsuit to rework the measure’s 75-word ballot description, which Greenlight leader Phil Arst called “disjointed and confusing,” failed after being filed too late.
Both sides see the future landscape of the city at stake. Greenlight supporters, in their ballot argument, paint the battle as a choice between maintaining “a high-quality residential and beach community,” or letting Newport become “another Santa Monica.”
Watkins, the neighborhood leader, suggested that Greenlight advocates “could go to Montana and live and not have to worry about (traffic).”
Detractors add that developers will simply take their projects to adjacent towns, leaving Newport with no oversight, no tax benefits and all the traffic impacts.
Indeed, coincidentally or not, condo towers have begun sprouting in the Irvine Business Complex just across Newport’s northern border, and Newport is now suing Irvine, saying the complex’s projects are poorly planned and will unleash a swarm of cars.
But given the precedent of the past six years, in which few major developments have come to fruition, Greenlighters may be correct about local desire to police growth.
In 2001, Greenlight’s first test saw a planned Koll Center office tower creamed at the polls. In 2004, a proposed five-star hotel on the Balboa Peninsula met a similar fate.
At the same time, many companies have withdrawn plans, lest they face the wrath of Greenlight. Among the forsaken projects: Irvine Co. expansion in Newport Center; Pacific Life expansion in Newport Center; and a 370-room hotel at Newport Dunes.
As with the first Greenlight, opponents say the new law undermines representative government. Why, they ask, should politicians approve budgets and negotiate labor deals, but not be trusted with reviewing new strip malls?
“It places an undue burden on the voters to try to understand ... complicated development proposals,” said former Mayor Dennis O’Neil, head of the No on Measure X group.
Greenlight activists respond that, in the words of group spokesman Phil Drachman, “the old-boy network, the fraternity in this city, has been run by developers.”
The new Greenlight emerged in response to the city’s proposed general plan update, which governs the type and amount of development allowed in town and will also be on the Nov. 7 ballot, as Measure V.
The two measures have become conflated, with Greenlight supporters opposing the general plan and viceversa.
In the cross-measure battle, each side has strained the truth.
Greenlight supporters, in a flier, argue the new general plan would add 125,000 cars to Newport’s streets. In fact, such a scenario would only occur if every project envisioned in the plan were built – an unlikely occurrence.
General plan backers, in a flier, argue their measure “protects (the first) Greenlight.” In fact, it would allow several projects that would now trigger Greenlight to avoid the ballot box.
The whole ordeal has even ardent opponents such as O’Neil wondering what could have been done to avoid the Greenlight redux.
“It is unfortunate that we have a contentious issue that is so divisive in the city,” he said, “when in fact, both sides of this issue are supported by residents of good faith that basically love our city.”
For the record
The Oct. 2 1 story “Candidates raking in campaign money,” said District 6 Councilman Dick Nichols was “betting that backing by the Greenlight Residents Group will carry him to four more years.” Nichols is endorsed by Greenlight leader Phil Arst, but the group has not formally endorsed a candidate in Dsitrict 6.
In 2000, Newport Beach voters approved the first Greenlight measure. It forces a public vote if a new development would add 1 00 peakhour auto trips; 1 00 housing units; or 40,000 square feet of floor space, and require amending the city’s general plan.
Greenlight II, or Measure X, forces a vote on any project that exceeds one of those thresholds, even if the general plan allows it.
Also, to prevent piecemealing of projects, it requires a vote on smaller developments that, in combination with others in 500-foot radius approved within five years, would exceed one of the thresholds.
FOR: Phil Arst is one of the leaders of the Greenlight forces in Newport Beach. He recently spoke out against the ballot description for Measure X, calling it ’disjointed and confusing.’
Supporters say ...
... Greenlight II simply gives residents a say in new developments ... City Council members are too pro-development to be trusted with proper review of major projects ... Greenlight II’s thresholds allow significant makeovers and reuses of existing developments
AGAINST: Former Newport Beach mayor Dennis O’Neil says Measure X "places an undue burden on the voters to try to understand ... complicated development proposals."
Opponents say ...
... Greenlight II undermines elected officials ... Politicians vote on budgets and labor contracts, and should be trusted with overseeing new developments ... The new law could discourage redevelopment and lead to stagnation