Council to Museum House: Return to Sender

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Rendering of proposed Museum House

Newport Beach City Council agreed with a number of outspoken residents this week regarding the controversial Museum House: Return to sender.

Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to rescind its prior approval of the 25-story, 100-unit condominium tower in Newport Center (minus the project’s EIR). Councilmen Will O’Neill and Scott Peotter dissented.

In November, a different council voted 6-1 to approve Related California’s Museum House project. It was slated to replace the single-story Orange County Museum of Art currently at the location at 850 San Clemente Drive.

On Tuesday, newly elected Councilman Jeff Herdman moved to rescind the decision and all related approvals for the Museum House project.

It doesn’t really matter if he personally likes the Museum House project or not, Herdman said.

“Whether I think it would be a beautiful project and an enhancement to our city [or not], I have to listen to the voice of the people,” Herdman said. “And in my voting, I have to represent that voice.”

At the first scoping meeting, long before the EIR, it was very apparent that the opposition was “plentiful,” Herdman said. The majority has clearly spoken against this project, he added. 

Other council members agreed with Herdman to vote according to what the residents want. 

Councilwoman Diane Dixon supported the project initially and thought it would add value to the community and have minimal, if any, environmental impacts.

Orange County Museum of Art, where the Museum House would have been built.
Orange County Museum of Art, where the Museum House would have been built.

But after hearing the response from the public, she respects the voice and the will of the people, Dixon said.

Councilman Brad Avery simplified and summarized his thoughts:

“I’ve liked the project from the very beginning,” Avery said, “but basically everything else that followed it I didn’t like.”

The rest has been “a bit of a horror show,” Avery said.

He questioned where the “other side” that support the project is and has yet to run into any resident that told him they liked the project.

The project was very well designed, he added, and he doesn’t believe it will create additional traffic. It’s in the right spot and would not be a big impact on the city, he said.

“I can’t vote against what I see as the will of the people,” Avery said.

Mayor Kevin Muldoon said it was a tough issue.

“We need opportunities for developers to develop responsibly in the city,” Muldoon said.

Line in the Sand Political Action Committee, the organization that headed up the effort to gather signatures for the referendum petition, applauded the Council’s decision in a statement released Wednesday and said it was a “direct result of the strength of voter feedback”

“Despite intimidation by the developer, it became apparent an actual election would yield only a foregone, and wastefully costly, conclusion,” LITS officials wrote.

Residents signing the Museum House petition
Residents signing the Museum House petition

According to city staff, cost to bring the project to an election would have ranged from about $95,000 if it got in the November 2018 election to as much as $4.3 million in a stand-alone election and if all the exhibits were required to be printed with the sample ballot.

The move was a win for opponents, but many are worried that since the council decided to keep the environmental impact report intact, the developer could return with a similar project.

Not including the EIR essentially says to the public that the council assumes and is ok with the developer trying again, said activist Nancy Skinner.

“That would mean we’d put the city through the same situation we just finished,” Skinner said. “Is that something we really want to do? I hope not.”

She urged council to rescind all the approvals related to the project or put it to a vote.

The EIR was originally included in Herdman’s motion, but a couple of council members thought keeping it might be useful in the future.

Dixon noted that the EIR contains helpful resources for a future project on the site, but it does not necessarily guarantee the same type of project. She supported that it could be used to save somebody “a heck of a lot of money” and describe the environmental factors of the site.

O’Neill asked if removing the EIR portion of the motion would be a “friendly” amendment. But Herdman did not agree.

“It’s not up to me,” Herdman said. “It’s what the people in this city want. They want a total revocation of this project.”

If another developer comes along and wants to do something with the property, it’s their responsibility to spend the money for an EIR, Herdman responded.

O’Neill said the petition only focused on one resolution regarding Museum House, and not the EIR resolution.

Assistant City Attorney Michael Torres explained that the referendum petition did only reference the resolution dealing with the general plan amendment, but staff added on the related zoning code resolutions so that it would stay consistent. He confirmed that Herdman’s motion covered that.

“If it [the EIR] doesn’t change zoning, it doesn’t change general plan, I’m at a loss why it would be included as part of a rescission package,” O’Neill said.

In an email to the city, Sean Matsler, representing OCMA Urban Housing LLC, the applicant for the Museum House project, made some of the same points.

“The California Elections Code does not require that the Council also de-certify the Museum House EIR,” Matsler wrote. “To do so would be highly unusual, particularly since that EIR was unanimously certified by the City Council and was not challenged in court by project opponents.”

In his email, Matsler suggested that the agenda item be revised to eliminate any reference to the EIR resolution.

Torres clarified on Tuesday that it’s included so that it would be a total repeal of all project documents so that it would “start from zero” for any future project.

Signing the Museum house petition
Signing the Museum house petition

In the end, O’Neill proposed an amendment to the motion that would to remove the rescinding of the EIR  All seven council members unanimously agreed. 

Nearly two dozen people spoke up during the sometimes rowdy night: 18 residents spoke out against the project, two in support of it, and one person on behalf of the developer.

Muldoon had to remind the audience to hold their applause so they could move through it quickly.

There is a lot of anger in the community and residents are upset, several speakers noted. Others noted that it was being “shoved down” their throats and told they have to like it.

Several opponents said the council members should be ashamed to still be supporting Museum House and that their vote will follow them to the next election.

Resident Dean Stratton questioned why council members were still defending the project after seeing the thousands of signatures on the petition.

“You’re not representing the people of Newport Beach, you are representing other interests,” Stratton said. “You guys need to crawl out of the sewer.”

Several people pointed out that the team of opponents managed to collect more than enough signatures in less than the required time period against a number of difficulties, including an oversized petition meant to thwart signature gathering efforts, physical intimidation and harassment, cold weather and interfering holiday plans.

In a decision harshly-criticized by petitioners, in November Council required that the petition include the extensive environmental analysis of the project and other supporting documents. The petition’s proponents spent more than $46,500 to print 425 petitions, which each included about 1,100 pages.

Those exhibits were required to be included in the referendum petition specifically to discourage circulation, resident Bruce Bartram pointed out.

Line in the Sand delivers the Museum House petition to the City Clerk's office
Line in the Sand delivers the Museum House petition to the City Clerk’s office

Tom Fredericks, a 40-year Newport Beach resident, suggested that perhaps Related California – now that they apparently want a vote – should agree to pay for the entire cost of the election should they lose.

The majority of the audience in council chambers supported completely rescinding the prior approval of the project, but not everyone in the crowd.

“Not everybody is against this Museum House,” said longtime Corona del Mar resident Ellen Trujillo. “There is another side to it.”

She argued that there is not enough single-level housing in the area for the elderly generation.

She also pointed out that the project will bring in a lot of revenue for the city.

Another Museum House supporter agreed.

“I don’t know what the big problem is with this building,” she commented. “The city of Newport Beach will lose by not having this building.”

It would be a world class building, add to the area, upgrade property values, and it does not set a precedent for the Newport, she said.

Another resident countered and said it would be wonderful somewhere else.

Patrick Strader, a land use consultant representing Related California and Museum House, pointed out a “flaw in the logic” of opposing speakers.

He was out in the community talking to people who were signing or considering signing the petition and all of the communication said “Put Museum House to a vote,” Strader said.

“The signatures were gathered to put the Museum House project to a vote,” he stated. “To state that all of those numerous signatures were gathered to reverse the entitlements is completely 100 percent false.”

Debra Allen, who helped gather signatures for the petition, said “every single person” she spoke with asked where to sign if they “just don’t want it,” she said.

Corona del Mar resident Karen Carlson said people felt they had no other way to protest and stop the process. It felt like Museum House was out of their hands, she added.

“[The petition] was our way of saying ‘We don’t want it,’” she said.

Strader also argued that the complaints about the length and weight of the petition were “hollow.” The documentation that the petitioners had was the same as what was passed around to the Planning Commission and the City Council, Strader said. The project went through a lengthy review, he added.

“It seems to be a twisting of the facts that actually occurred,” Strader said.

Mayor Pro Tem Marshall “Duffy” Duffield agreed and took a cue from a favorite phrase of President Donald Trump and called them “fake facts.”

He took issue with the information being used during the signature gathering for the petition about the height, “massive” traffic and that it would set a precedent. They were just “selling or pitching” the idea of opposing the Museum House tower, he said. They were not telling the whole truth and “that’s not good either,” Duffield added.

Duffield heard it “a million times” to take it to a vote of the people and that was the direction he was leaning, he said. He ultimately voted to rescind the project’s approval, minus the EIR.

“This whole thing is a nightmare,” Duffield said.

There have also been a few lawsuits related to the project.

Orange County Museum of Art filed a lawsuit Jan. 6 asking the court to find the petition “deficient and voided,” saying it “failed to meet the most basic and mandatory requirements of California’s election law” and that the text was so small it was “virtually unreadable.”

Newport Beach City Council and city clerk Leilani Brown are named as respondents. The Line in the Sand organization, and two of its members, Dennis Baker and Nancy Skinner, are named as real parties in interest.

In another court case, the Irvine Company dropped their lawsuit against Related California on Feb. 3. The lawsuit, filed Dec. 9 in Orange County Superior Court, claimed supporters of the project trespassed at several of the Newport Beach shopping centers located on Irvine Company property. Irvine Co. officials stated that Museum House proponents were at the centers without permission, trying to disrupt signature-gathering efforts by Line in the Sand and created a hostile environment for shoppers.

All of this, including Muldoon’s recent comments about working with residents on the upcoming general plan update and Council’s action on Tuesday, “should be the catalyst that brings together voters and city leaders for an open conversation about the future character of our town,” LITS officials wrote in the statement. “By talking and listening to each other, the hope is that a true consensus will develop for future planning purposes.”

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