The Irvine Co. filed a lawsuit Friday in Orange County Superior Court against the developer of Museum House, alleging the firm's supporters have been unlawfully petitioning on Irvine Co. properties and creating a "hostile environment" for shoppers.
The Irvine Co., based in Newport Beach, contends that people working for Related California have been trespassing on its properties and disrupting Museum House opponents’ efforts to gather signatures in an attempt to force a referendum on the 25-story, 100-unit luxury condominium tower the Newport Beach City Council approved last month for Newport Center.
The Irvine Co. requires advance registration for "free speech" activities on its properties.
"We were forced to take legal action today against the Museum House developer in order to ensure that our retail centers' free-speech rules — which follow state and federal law — are followed and our guests enjoy a pleasant shopping experience," Irvine Co. officials said in a statement Friday. "Going forward, we will serve a summons on any agent of the Museum House who engages our guests in political discourse without following our centers' rules."
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and a temporary restraining order against Related California agents who are on Irvine Co. properties without permission.
Local activist group Line in the Sand, organizer of the referendum drive, has been conducting its petition activities lawfully and “receiving permission from Irvine Co. to set up tables at several of its Newport Beach shopping centers,” the Irvine Co. statement said.
Sean Matsler, attorney for Museum House, said Friday that Related California hired a vendor to "educate the public" about the process and has submitted registration paperwork to the Irvine Co. to do so.
He said the vendor didn't know, however, that one form wouldn't apply to all 10 Irvine Co. centers. The company requires registration at each center.
"Our vendor is in the process of complying with this technicality," Matsler said in an email.
Matsler also said Related California will pay for "retired or active peace officers to sit at the shopping centers and help guarantee that all sides participate fairly in the public process. We hope this removes any concerns or issues going forward."
The suit came after days of reports from residents and activists about Museum House supporters engaging people at Irvine Co. shopping centers without the company’s permission.
Line in the Sand organizer Jennifer McDonald said she saw 10 Museum House proponents at Newport Beach's Eastbluff center on Thursday. She said they were handing out literature supporting the condominium project while encouraging people not to sign the referendum petition.
"There was no way people could go to the shops without interacting with them, and they were really in-your-face aggressive," McDonald wrote in an email.
Two men who were at the Westcliff shopping center in Newport Beach on Wednesday left the property after speaking with a security manager. They had been at the same location a few days earlier.
On Wednesday they were asking people to rescind their signatures supporting Line in the Sand's referendum effort.
On Dec. 2, residents reported seeing the men gathering signatures opposing Museum House, leading some to speculate they were trying to trick people into signing a fake petition. Line in the Sand had not yet begun circulating its petition.
The men declined any comment when approached by Daily Pilot reporters both days.
Museum House representatives said they didn't know who was circulating those materials.