Opponents of Museum House condo tower vow referendum effort to overturn Newport council's OK

The Newport Beach City Council's approval late Tuesday of a 25-story luxury condominium tower brought a vow from activists to try to challenge the project through a referendum.

The council's 6-1 decision, with member Tony Petros dissenting, affirmed the Planning Commission's recommendation in October to approve the 100-unit Museum House development.

Tuesday's vote came after roughly three hours of public comments and council discussion in the packed council chamber at City Hall.

The project's supporters, who wore matching stickers, called it "world class" and a worthy addition to Newport Center, where it is planned to replace the Orange County Museum of Art at 850 San Clemente Drive. The museum intends to depart for a new site in Costa Mesa.

The council approved a general plan amendment changing the property's land use from private institutional to multi-unit residential, with a limit of 100 units.

But opponents said Tuesday that they're planning a referendum in an attempt to overturn the decision.

"You may stand with developers or you may stand with residents," said Susan Skinner, a member of Still Protecting Our Newport, an activist group that opposes Museum House.

SPON’s political arm, Line in the Sand, is sponsoring the referendum effort. For the next month, the group will look to collect 8,000 voter signatures, more than the required 10% of the city’s registered voters.

If the petition is certified, Museum House could be subject to a public vote. 

In casting the dissenting vote, Petros pointed to anti-development sentiment expressed in the vote on 2014's Measure Y, a ballot initiative that aimed to update the city's general plan to allow more multifamily housing in and around Newport Center and limit development along the more residential coast. It was soundly defeated by local voters.

Museum House's 295-foot-tall tower would consist of 54 two-bedroom units with three bathrooms and 46 three-bedroom units with four bathrooms. Each unit would have a private balcony.

The condos would range from 1,800 to 6,000 square feet and be priced from $2 million to $4 million.

The developer, Related California LLC, plans to include 200 resident and 50 guest parking spaces, with valet parking available onsite.

As part of the council's approval, Related California must pay an additional $4 million in fees, as suggested by Mayor Diane Dixon.

Dixon wanted the money to fund a junior lifeguard headquarters, a lecture hall for the Central Library and landscaping along West Coast Highway.

"These projects are not currently funded or likely to be funded," she said.

Councilman Scott Peotter said he didn't like the council holding Related California "over the barrel" for additional money. But he said he could support the extra fees as long as their use wasn't set in stone.

The council ultimately voted in favor of Dixon's suggestion, with the caveat that her three preferred projects are merely recommendations, not mandates for a future council.

In a prepared speech, Councilman Ed Selich said he first heard about the Museum House proposal in 2014 and wasn't immediately enthusiastic about it. But, he said, with OCMA's impending departure, the museum's property is too expensive for another arts organization to buy.

OCMA plans to use the money from Related California's purchase of the 2-acre site to move to its new location near the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Related's purchase price has not been disclosed.

Selich said Museum House will be Newport Center's seventh high-rise and that it will blend into the skyline.

"One more high-rise will not change the look and feel of Newport Center," he said.

Skinner said she was dismayed by Selich’s motion, approved by the council, that effectively attached thousands of pages of environmental documents and other materials to SPON’s referendum petition.

Councilman Keith Curry objected, saying the additional documents will make the petitions look like phone books.

“That is nothing more than an effort to subvert the people’s right to petition the government,” Curry said.

Curry said he also was "profoundly disappointed" by political consultant Dave Ellis' "backdoor" lobbying on behalf of the project before Tuesday's hearing.

Councilman Marshall "Duffy" Duffield disagreed with Curry's remark about Ellis, who organized the campaigns for the four "Team Newport" City Council candidates, including Duffield, who won election in 2014.

"Dave Ellis does not call me and tell me how to vote, OK? Ever. And he never will," Duffield said. "So I take a little offense at that, that I'm being a puppet of Dave Ellis. I'm not. I'm not a politician either."

Ellis declined to comment Wednesday.

Duffield expressed dismay about the art museum moving but said Museum House would benefit the city financially and have no adverse effects on Newport Center.

The project is expected to generate $21.7 million to the city and schools through various fees paid by Related California.

But critics, who gathered more than 1,500 signatures against the development, expressed worries about its possible effects on traffic and argued that the tower would set a precedent for more high-rise residences and transform Newport Beach into something resembling Los Angeles.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

Copyright © 2017, Daily Pilot

UPDATES

4:15 p.m.: This article was updated to include the referendum's sponsor and petition requirements; and to include additional comments from project opponent Susan Skinner and Councilman Keith Curry.

This article was originally posted at 12:12 p.m.

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