Newport Beach City Council got the ball rolling Tuesday on the General Plan update, but slowed the roll down to a crawl in an effort to be transparent, engage and inform the community, and take their time considering a potential update.
The General Plan provides the policy basis for all land-use and zoning regulations, details how circulation and traffic will (or won’t) work, lays out development guidelines, and more. The last update was in 2006.
After city staff presented the potential process during the study session, the general consensus on the dais was to slow it down. They supported the idea of establishing a “blue ribbon” committee to review the existing plan and circle back in a year or two with suggestions for the Council on what — if anything other than the absolutely necessary — elements of the General Plan should be updated.
“We can study what we want to do and how we want to do it,” by engaging the community and returning to Council with additional information, said Deputy Community Development Director Jim Campbell.
The aim is to form a grassroots group to evaluate what the city currently has before diving into the full process. The actual General Plan update process would not officially start until the blue ribbon committee returns with recommendations for City Council.
Although staff originally proposed Council appoint a Steering Committee and begin establishing a resident-lead General Plan Advisory Committee to initiate the update process, after the feedback at the study session some changes were made.
Staff quickly worked to adjust the resolution for Tuesday night’s regular meeting, which included forming a blue ribbon committee. They recommended the committee consist of 10 people: Two Council members, one resident from each district, and one member from a city commission or committee.
Several Council members wanted more time to process the new proposal and allow staff to better prepare the adjusted resolution, while also giving the public another chance to chime in on the idea. They unanimously agreed to continue it until an upcoming meeting, possibly the next meeting, but it may not be ready until the new year.
It would save funds and potential extra work time, while still allowing the issue to be explored, said Mayor Kevin Muldoon.
“We want complete transparency. We want deliberate, thoughtful consideration, respecting of other opinions, balancing of projects, or no projects in specific areas,” Muldoon said. “We need community buy-in otherwise there’s no point to this at all.”
The process, before the blue ribbon committee was suggested, was estimated to complete in mid-2020. There will be community engagement, draft documents, public review, and commission hearings before final approval.
“This is not etched in stone,” Muldoon said. “We are not in a rush.”
They want consensus from the community, he added. It won’t be placed on the 2020 ballot if more work is needed, he confirmed.
“We don’t want a repeat of failed initiatives in the past,” Muldoon said. “We don’t want the residents to feel that they don’t have control over their own city’s destiny.”
Residents that spoke during public comment on Tuesday seemed to appreciate the Council’s commitment to moving slowly and thoughtfully ahead, as well as their emphasis on citizen participation.
Dorothy Kraus, vice president of Stop Polluting Our Newport, also known as Still Protecting Our Newport or SPON, thanked the Council and staff for their assurances for transparency, constituent engagement, and not rushing the process.
She urged them not to put the “cart before the horse” and consider what needs to be changed and how best to accomplish those goals before launching down a set path.
“Study sessions are to listen and solicit new ideas and then, before deciding how to proceed with the General Plan, take time to thoughtfully digest and consider what you’ve heard,” Kraus said.
Harnessing “citizen power” can be cost effective and lead to better results, she added.
City officials have called it “the community’s general plan update” and have emphasized resident involvement in the process.
The General Plan is the “community’s vision” that presents a “long-range blueprint for development,” Campbell explained.
Not only have some state planning laws changed since 2006 (which will require at least a partial update), but the community’s vision may have as well, he said.
“The goal is to.. review, and then update the general plan to reflect the community’s changing vision,” Campbell said.
Other public speakers raised concerns about how some residents felt left out or ignored during previous General Plan updates.
Elaine Linhoff, who said she was involved with the early process through Newport Tomorrow in the 1970s, thought the most recent update was a disingenuous process aimed so residents would “feel good” but were ultimately disregarded.
“[It felt] like we really had a part, but that the result was staff and consultant driven and did not totally reflect the wishes of the residents of the city,” Linhoff said. “I hope that this time you won’t end up with any citizen feeling like their opinions were ignored.”
There’s a great interest to participate and get involved, said Councilman Brad Avery. The community wants to “feel like they have a handle on the process, obviously, but on their future” as well, he explained.
Trust, consensus and balance all need to come back to the city, added resident Tim Stoaks.
Councilman Jeff Herdman said his main point of concern is following through with a process that the community completely trusts. With so many residents reminding the Council to be transparent with the process during public comments, there is obviously a question of trust in the community, he said.
He wondered if this is the right time to start this process, considering the opposing elements in the community right now.
“I’m concerned about the division that’s in the community right now and the temperature within the community for completing this process,” Herdman said. “I don’t know if the climate is that healthy to embark on this process right now.”
Things might need to settle or cool down before moving forward with it, he suggested.
“It needs to be a very sober discussion,” Herdman said. “It’s a very serious task.”
Former mayor Nancy Gardner, who staff recommended be part of the Steering Committee, called it a “huge step forward” and thanked the council for the commitment to community involvement.
She leaned more toward not delaying the process.
People on each side of the division are “hunkering down” and not talking to each other, Gardner said. That is not how things get resolved, she added. That’s why sooner would be better than later to get this process started, Gardner noted.