The battle over Museum House, a 25-story luxury condominium tower approved by the Newport Beach City Council this week, took a new turn Thursday with allegations of wrongdoing involving something that has little to do with the project itself: a helipad.
Mark Rosen, an attorney for Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that has been fighting the Museum House project through mailers and television ads, alleged in a statement that the council erred in its approval Tuesday night because it voted without receiving requisite written confirmation from the Federal Aviation Administration that the condo tower and aircraft using a nearby helipad would not pose a threat to each other.
The objection comes as local activists opposed to the 100-unit development are launching a petition drive to try to force a referendum on the plan. Those critics express worries about the project's possible effects on traffic and the prospect of more high-rise residences in Newport Beach.
The helipad Rosen referred to is on top of the Newport Beach Police Department headquarters on Santa Barbara Drive, about 1,000 feet northwest of Museum House's approved site at 850 San Clemente Drive. The development is slated to replace the Orange County Museum of Art, which plans to move to a new location in Costa Mesa.
The helipad is not in regular use — Newport Beach no longer has its own police helicopter team that it once shared with Costa Mesa — but it is occasionally used for picking up and dropping off police personnel when needed.
In a statement to the Daily Pilot, Newport city officials rejected the group's assertion, saying they received sufficient documentation Tuesday afternoon, before the council meeting, from Kari Rigoni, executive officer of the Airport Land Use Commission for Orange County. In her letter, Rigoni said the FAA was OK with the helipad's proximity to Museum House.
The helipad question was raised earlier in November when the Airport Land Use Commission gave its own OK for Museum House, with the condition that the FAA and Police Department also determine that the project's proximity to the helipad is acceptable.
City spokeswoman Tara Finnigan said Newport police reviewed the Museum House plan and "concluded that the building does not impact the Police Department's helipad because it is not in, nor near enough, to the helicopter's standard approach and departure paths, nor is the building tall enough to provide an obstruction to helicopter operations in the area."
City Manager Dave Kiff added: "The city recognizes that the Museum House project has created much discussion in the community, but the project won't impact the Newport Beach Police Department's helipad. This issue is resolved."
But Rosen said Rigoni's letter did not fill the bill of what the airport commission requested: written confirmation from the FAA itself.
Rigoni is "making a leap she really shouldn't be making," Rosen said.
Rosen said he has filed various public records requests with Newport Beach, including asking for FAA documentation that Museum House would present no hazards to aircraft.
"The people have a right to know that everything was done to mitigate the risk of a police helicopter flying into the Museum House and that the vote to approve the project was taken legally," Rosen said in a news release.
In response to the allegations, Sean Matsler, a Newport Beach resident and an attorney for Museum House developer Related California LLC, called the nonprofit's efforts against the project a "very expensive smear campaign."
Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers received a cease-and-desist letter Monday from Related California, which contended that the group's mailers and ads contained a "doctored and grossly inaccurate image of Museum House appearing approximately 103 stories tall. The advertisements also repeated false statements about the project's impacts, all of which have been factually rebutted."
Matsler noted that airport land use commissioners, Newport police and firefighters associations and "hundreds of citizens" had approved of Museum House.
He also raised questions about the sources of Citizens Against High Rise Urban Towers' funding.
"Mr. Rosen's group ... must come forward and disclose the source of the huge sums of money to fund this effort," Matsler said. "The citizens of Newport Beach have a right to know who is opposing progress in their city."
Rosen told the Daily Pilot that the nonprofit is funded "primarily" by Newport Beach residents who have signed other petitions against Museum House. He said he is unaware of the group's other financial backers.
Rosen called the cease-and-desist letter from Related California a "typical developer tactic to try and intimidate people who oppose their projects."